Israel under pressure to conclude flawed case against aid worker

Supporters of Mohammed al-Halabi in Gaza (Anadolu Agency)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian   /  February 28, 2022

Latest court order raises hopes of verdict in trial of World Vision’s Mohammed al-Halabi.

Pressure is mounting on Israel to conclude the trial of a Gazan aid worker accused of funnelling relief money to Hamas in a six-year-old case widely derided by the international community as “not worthy of a democratic state”.

Mohammed al-Halabi, the head of the US-based charity World Vision’s Gaza office, was detained in 2016 after being accused by Israel’s Shin Bet security service of transferring $7.2m (£5.4m) a year to the Palestinian militant group in control of the Gaza Strip.

World Vision said the amount was more than its entire operating budget for the enclave, and an independent donor government audit carried out in the wake of Halabi’s arrest found no evidence of wrongdoing or diversion of funds.

More than 160 court sessions later, Halabi, 45, remains in administrative detention, despite serious flaws in the Israeli case. The Beersheba district court heard closing arguments last October; it is unclear what is now delaying the verdict.

The Israeli justice ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At a hearing at Israel’s high court last week, Halabi’s detention was extended for another three months. The court said it would only issue the extension after checking that the lower court would be able to come to a verdict before the order expires in May, giving rise to an expectation that a verdict will be issued soon.

Halabi’s legal team has been pushing for him to be moved from prison to a home arrest facility in Haifa, which the high court said would be considered if the Beersheba court continued to delay.

Maher Hanna, one of Halabi’s lawyers, said: “There is no reason for the verdict to be taking this long, or for any of the delays and secretive procedures we have seen in the last six years. It is difficult for Israel to say its courts are fair in a case like this.”

Hanna said he had been unable to properly cross-examine witnesses whose identities were obscured, or take home records of court sessions, and had often been denied access to critical evidence declared confidential.

A supposed confession from Halabi, based on notes made by an investigator who talked to another prisoner who heard it, was reportedly lost by police.

“The facts are very clear and the case should have been dropped a long time ago … but the Israelis need to find a face-saving way out since Mohammed refused a plea deal,” Hanna said.

The prisoners’ rights group Addameer has said that “many Palestinian detainees plead guilty for offences they did not commit and waive their right to continue with judicial procedures”, often because of a lack of faith in the Israeli civil and military court systems to deliver fair and timely verdicts.

With World Vision’s legal backing, however, Halabi has been able to take what his father described as a “principled stand”, refusing to admit to crimes he says he did not commit and avoiding further damage to World Vision’s reputation.

The charity suspended its Gaza operations after Halabi’s arrest, shutting down psychosocial programming for 40,000 children, as well as provision of medical supplies and food relief.

“We don’t want compensation, we don’t want this to drag on longer with an appeal [after a possible conviction]”, said Khalil al-Halabi, Mohammed’s father. “We just want an apology, and for Mohammed to come home.”

In the years since the peace process ground to a halt, Israel has faced growing criticism of its treatment of Palestinians as the conflict is increasingly viewed internationally as a struggle for equal rights rather than a territorial dispute.

UN human rights experts, diplomats and NGOs have repeatedly called on Israel to grant Halabi immediate access to a fair trial or release him.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian