(RNS) — Mohammad El Halabi, the director of the Christian charity World Vision in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, was known for working hard in one of the most difficult humanitarian environments in the world. His work was so well appreciated that in 2014 the United Nations awarded him a “humanitarian hero” award and his organization named him “humanitarian of the year.”
He became so well regarded for helping besieged Palestinians in Gaza that in June 2016, as he was returning from a meeting with his director in Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities arrested him. News stories splashed in the media said he had been found to have directed $50 million worth of humanitarian aid to a Palestinian armed group that Israel considers terrorists.
For 50 days he was tortured, prevented from seeing his lawyer and badly beaten. He lost 40% of his hearing as a result of the Israeli soldiers’ abuse. He rejected the accusations of his Israeli interrogators, as did World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States.
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The immediate result of this arrest was the closure of the World Vision office. The NGO launched a huge audit to see if El Halabi had indeed done anything wrong. So did the Australian government, a major funder of World Relief’s Mideast efforts. After an exhaustive search that included emails and all accounting documents, no proof of any wrongdoing was found.
The Israeli district court in Beersheba, which handled the case, slapped a gag order on all evidence in the the case, which kept the evidence from the public eye, even much of it from his own lawyer. Since the Israelis had also added a treason charge, his lawyer was unable to win El Halabi’s release from jail while the case proceeded. Instead, Israeli prosecutors repeatedly offered to have him released on the condition that he admit guilt — even for a minor charge.
He refused, insisting that any admission of guilt would have negative consequences on the Palestinian people he has been trying to help.
The continuous stalling by prosecutors forced his lawyer to appeal 24 times to Israel’s supreme court. After the last appeal, the court ordered the Beersheba court, which had heard final arguments in summer of 2021, to produce a decision. On Wednesday (June 15), the district court, working in closed session, exonerated El Halabi of the treason accusation while, oddly, convicting him of supporting and abetting terrorists.
The court gave no evidence, basing its entire decision on a document it said contains a confession El Halabi made to one of the cellmates the Israelis had sent him. El Halabi admits he told his cellmate things that could possibly incriminate him, knowing the man was an Israeli mole, in hopes of stopping the torture he was undergoing. He thought his “confession” would not hold up, believing that what he said could easily be disproved.
El Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, compared using a jailhouse confession without corroborating evidence to convicting someone of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, even as the supposed victim was walking around, patently alive.
Hanna pointed to El Halabi’s contention in the alleged confession that he took pictures of sites in Israel in 2009, but Israeli records show that El Halabi had never entered Israel in that year or any other. The court also accepted Israeli intelligence claims that he had ordered tons of metal bars to be imported into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing. But World Vision has never imported anything from that crossing, records show. Another item of so-called evidence refers to a grant to Gaza from the United Kingdom that El Halabi allegedly diverted to Hamas. The U.K. has never made contributions to Gaza.
Human Rights Watch, the U.N., members of Australia’s Parliament and others have repeatedly called for the release of El Halabi. Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and the occupied territories has called the conviction a “miscarriage of justice.”
“In our view,” said World Relief in a statement after El Halabi’s conviction, “there have been irregularities in the trial process and a lack of substantive, publicly available evidence.”
El Halabi was detained at a time when the Netanyahu government wanted to put more pressure on ordinary Palestinians. One Israeli official publicly said at the time that the government did not want to starve Gazans to death, but wanted to “put them on a diet.”
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The case against El Halabi has dealt a blow to faith in the Israeli justice system. More importantly, it has helped perpetuate an illegal and immoral siege of nearly 2 million human beings living in the occupied Gaza Strip, one the Israelis know is not sustainable. Ironically, as EL Halabi stood wrongly accused of diverting humanitarian aid to Hamas, the Netanyahu government approved the transfer of millions of dollars in suitcases to Hamas in order to ensure that Gaza did not explode under the pressure the siege has caused.
Rarely has one case so clearly exposed the injustice of the Israeli judicial system and the total control of the Israeli intelligence service of its deliberations. It is high time that Mohammad El Halabi be released and the Christian charity that he has worked for, World Vision, be permitted to reopen and provide needed help to the people of the Gaza Strip.
(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkutab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)