World Vision defendant convicted for assisting terrorist group
The Beersheba District Court on Wednesday convicted World Vision defendant Mohammad al-Halabi, around six years after his arrest.
By YONAH JEREMY BOB
Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest in solidarity with Mohammad El Halabi, World Vision's manager of operations in Gaza who was accused by Israel of funneling millions of dollars in aid money to Hamas, organized by foundations and societies benefiting from World Vision in Gaza City August
The Beersheba District Court on Wednesday convicted World Vision defendant Mohammad al-Halabi of most terror financing charges, around six years after his arrest and under pressure from the High Court of Justice to stop dragging its feet.
Who is Mohammad al-Halabi?
He was acquitted of one charge of assisting the enemy, based on the idea that, as a Gaza resident, he is not a citizen of a state.
Halabi's lawyer Maher Hana said that he would appeal the conviction to the Supreme Court.The case itself
HAMAS ABIDES by its charter: Graffiti depicts Hamas fighters firing rockets, in Khan Younis, May 30. (credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
The court found that Halabi confessed to the financial terror charges during his interrogation by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
The judges said that he was highly sophisticated and that his confession was "coherent, specific and included unique details... which he could not have concocted on the spot."
Convicted World Vision defendant Mohammad al-Halabi's confession was "coherent, specific and included unique details... which he could not have concocted on the spot." Beersheba District Court judges
In addition, they said that there was significant external documentary proof of his actions.
Though the court said that it knew World Vision believes Halabi to be innocent, it said that it was more likely that the organization did not want to overdo oversight of its finances, lest it harms its working relations with Gazan groups.
Further, the court scheduled a hearing for July 10 to debate extending his detention and set a date for Halabi's sentencing hearing.
Although he has already served six years in prison, his maximum sentence for convictions on over a dozen charges could run over 20 years (though maximum sentences are rare).
His Hamas connections
According to the court ruling, Halabi was recruited by Abu Cuchba of Hamas in 2004.
Though Halabi and his brother, Diya, were initially Hamas fighters, he was eventually assigned to infiltrate World Vision to be an undercover Hamas operative assisting the group, the court said.
World Vision hired him in 2005. Initially, he worked in its northern Gaza section, but by 2014 he had achieved a high management position for the entire Strip.
The judges said that throughout his World Vision employment, Halabi met with Hamas military operatives to keep up with their needs.
In the verdict, the court said that Halabi intentionally diverted large volumes of iron, plastic and digging tools to Hamas to assist it with digging terror tunnels.
Further, the court said that in 2012, Halabi twice visited terror tunnels with his brother and another operative, in one case providing the operative with $20,000 to repair tunnels destroyed by flooding.
Hana said that the court failed to address issues, such as the source and the tracing of the alleged terror funds.
He said that he had direct proof that the prosecution had not shown the full trail of some of the alleged terror funds, but that the court issued a gag order (only a paraphrasing of the verdict was published for national security reasons), preventing him from revealing this to the public.
For example, he said that the $20,000 incident from 2012 was a mix of stories that did not involve Halabi and even different amounts of money, but that no one had brought evidence even to prove where the alleged $20,000 would have come from.
Addressing two other specific allegations, Hana said Halabi did not even deal with iron, so he could not have been transferring vast quantities to Hamas and he noted that one accusation involved Halabi crossing at the Kerem Shalom border post, despite Israeli records showing Halabi did not cross there during the relevant period as well as the overlapping six-year period.
In contrast, prosecutors involved in the case told The Jerusalem Post that they had presented the court with unambiguous bank statements showing the path of the alleged terror funds.
In the case, the state prosecution accused Halabi of assisting Hamas on the side to his humanitarian work, but he claimed the charges were made to delegitimize Palestinian civil society.
Because Halabi was connected to World Vision - a global NGO - his case has received global coverage and is being watched closely in terms of making judgments about the fairness and professionalism of the Israeli justice system.
As the Halabi verdict came in, the International Criminal Court is about 15 months into a criminal investigation of alleged Israeli and Hamas war crimes during the 2014 Gaza War and the 2018 Gaza border conflict, and has yet to give any signs about how it views Israel's prosecution and courts in terms of probes and verdicts that have come out regarding the events in dispute.
There are hard questions also about whether the timeframe and evidentiary stringencies of the trial can be justified given that Halabi was not charged with violent crimes himself.
High Court pressure
The setting of the verdict date itself came under a direct order from the High Court on May 9.
The High Court had been set to hear a debate about whether to extend Halabi's detention for another 90 days, despite previous expectations that the verdict would come out before May.
The justices seemed to have finally lost patience with the Beersheba District Court which has been trying the case.
In February, the High Court extended his detention for 90 days, but on the basis that it had indications from the Beersheba District Court that this could be a final extension before the verdict.
Halabi's case had come before the High Court dozens of times since his August 2016 indictment, but each time the justices had extended his detention pending a verdict in the trial.
The extremely delayed and time-consuming trial ended with closing arguments in July and October 2021; it is unclear what further delayed the verdict.
Halabi has vehemently denied the charges and accused the prosecution and the Shin Bet of manufacturing them, coercing a confession in order to undermine humanitarian organizations in Gaza and dragging out the case.
World Vision itself accused the Israeli court and prosecution of "irregularities in the trial process and a lack of substantive and publicly available evidence." They supported Halabi's decision to appeal and called for a "fair and transparent appeal process based on the facts of the case."
NGO Monitor said the decision "highlights fundamental vulnerabilities of a multi-billion dollar NGO aid industry that remains largely unregulated and unexamined."
They said there was a vast multi-million dollar gap between World Vision's income and its expenses.
To date, only the defendant has been unloading on the prosecution, with the state refraining from responding publicly due to concerns of revealing classified intelligence.
Mohammad was indicted in August 2016 for smuggling $7.2 million a year to Hamas for buying weapons and building attack tunnels.
This was instead of being used by World Vision for food, humanitarian assistance, and aid programs for disabled children.
Neither World Vision nor an Australian government audit found the wrongdoing allegedly uncovered by Israel's Shin Bet.
Since March 2021, more allegations have come out from El Halabi's side, including that he was fooled by an undercover informant in detention into confirming details which the informant kept pressuring El Hablabi to confirm.
According to the defense, El Halabi told law enforcement that the confession was coerced from the first moment they raised it with him and the original document recording the confession was lost by police.
The defense says that the case should have been tossed in light of the circumstances in which the confession was given and that the police record of what was said is an inauthentic photocopy, raising questions of a police cover-up.
In addition, the defense has claimed that World Vision did not even transfer any materials to Gaza at some of the crossing points where the prosecution says El Halabi made illegal transfers to Hamas.
The Post has learned that although these allegations were new to the public in March 2021, the prosecution had been aware of them and responded to them behind closed doors throughout the trial.
While the prosecution's responses are classified at this stage, it appears that the prosecution would acknowledge using an undercover informant, but would say that this is a standard approved tactic and that no illegal pressure was applied.
Moreover, the prosecution would point out that the court already rejected any allegations of a coerced confession earlier in the case and that the only question left to the court is how much weight to give the confession.
In terms of the lost document allegation, it appears the prosecution would likely express regret, but reject any conspiracy theories. It would point out that this is not the first case such an error occurred and note that the defense has not flagged any specific issues to invalidate the authenticity of the copy of the confession.
Regarding the border crossing issue, the prosecution would respond that El Halabi was a clever operator and sometimes used different organizations or names to move materials, while using World Vision as his main laundering tool.
Both sides accuse the other of unconscionable delays relating to fighting over how the trial would take place, what evidence the defense would get to see and the possibility in the earlier years of reaching a plea deal.