World Vision urges Israel to try 'Hamas aid' case in public

Jerusalem (AFP) - World Vision's global president has questioned Israeli accusations that the NGO's Gaza head diverted millions of dollars in aid to Hamas and said his trial should be open to the public.

A pre-trial hearing for World Vision's Mohammed al-Halabi was held in secret Tuesday morning in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.

"A trial is legitimate if it is transparent," World Vision International's president Kevin Jenkins told AFP in one of his first interviews since Halabi was charged on August 4.

"Obviously with such serious allegations against a staff member, we are calling for him to have a fair hearing."

He said the allegations against Halabi were so serious that the NGO was hoping for an open trial to learn as many lessons as possible if they were proved correct.

"As much as our donors want the truth to come out, we want the truth to come out," he said. "Our whole reputation is based on integrity."

All media and even World Vision staff were prevented from attending Tuesday's hearing, Halabi's lawyer said.

The accusations against him were read out while Halabi, wearing a brown prisoner's uniform, stood motionless, lawyer Lea Tsemel said.

Halabi has not yet spoken in the court but intends to plead not guilty, she said.

The case will reconvene in early October.

Israel foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said such closed doors trials were "standard practice" due to the sensitive nature of the information presented.

It is "standard practice in terrorism cases all over the Western world," he told AFP.

On August 4, Israel alleged that Halabi had diverted more than $7.2 million each year since 2010 to Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip.

This allegedly equated to 60 percent of the NGO's budget for Gaza, with much of the money being syphoned off to Hamas's military wing to fight Israel, according to the charges.

Halabi initially confessed, Israel said, but Amnesty International said there were allegations he had been mistreated in custody and "may have been forced into 'confessing' under duress."

Amnesty also called for the trial to be opened to the media.

- 'Difficult to reconcile' -

Halabi's arrest was followed by similar allegations against a Save the Children employee and the arrest of a United Nations worker for allegedly funnelling rubble to Hamas to build a military jetty.

The UN has disputed the allegations.

Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fought three wars since 2008 and Hamas is labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.

Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said the allegations showed a "troubling trend of the systematic exploitation (of aid) by Hamas terrorists."

But Jenkins called the scale of the allegations against Halabi "very difficult to reconcile" with reality.

The NGO has said its Gaza budget for the past 10 years was only $22.5 million, making the numbers alleged all but impossible.

Charities working in Gaza have some of the tightest controls on funds in the world, partly due to tough counter-terrorism legislation.

The impoverished Palestinian enclave has one of the world's highest unemployment rates and the UN says that more than two-thirds of the population rely on some form of foreign aid.

"We are not a naive organisation. We have world-class systems to prevent the sort of things that are being alleged here," Jenkins said.

"They are not foolproof, (but) they would generally have all sorts of red lights going off if anything close to what is being alleged should happen.

"It is very difficult to reconcile those numbers against the controls we have in place."

Jenkins defended World Vision's work in Gaza over the years, saying it had performed "with integrity" and last year provided support for more than 40,000 children.

The NGO has currently suspended its projects in the Palestinian territories pending an internal review, but Jenkins said there was a "strong desire to return to Gaza".

"We can only work in places where we can perform our work with integrity. We feel like we have done that in the past. I feel like we will be able to do it going forward."