UN experts have basically just said that Israel is not a democracy

Palestinian protesters hold posters of Mohammad El Halabi of World Vision International, arrested by Israel in 2017 (Mustafa Hassona - Anadolu Agency)

Asa Winstanley

Middle East Monitor  /  November 26, 2020

Although it is only one of Israel’s many injustices, the case of Mohammed El-Halabi is a particularly egregious example of the colonial-settler state’s criminality. El-Halabi was a leading Palestinian aid worker — the Gaza director for WorldVision, a Christian charity funded in part by the Australian government — but has now been languishing in an Israeli cell for four years, denied his most basic right to a fair trial.

By all accounts, El-Halabi is being tortured by the Israeli regime in an attempt to coerce him into accepting a plea bargain. He has been subjected to more than 150 military court hearings, mostly held in secret. Palestinians alone are treated under military law, and with Israel’s apartheid legal system completely rigged against Palestinians in any case, the injustice is piling up.

El-Halabi and his family maintain his innocence, and Israel has presented no evidence of its transparently false claims against him, so he is heroically refusing to take the plea deal. He is very conscious of the ramifications that a false admission of wrongdoing would have for other international aid agencies working in the Gaza Strip. Such iron will is a heroic example of Palestinian resistance.

Israel’s real agenda in fabricating a corruption case against this senior charity worker is to push back against the international pressure for it to allow more humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. This is very clear when you understand the nature of the false Israeli claims against El-Halabi.

He has been accused of misappropriating millions from WorldVision’s aid budget and passing it to Hamas, a Palestinian resistance movement. However, investigations and audits by both the Australian government and WorldVision itself have found the allegation to be utterly unfounded. Apart from anything else, the amount that El-Halabi is said to have stolen amounts to more than twice the entire WorldVision budget for the Gaza Strip. Israel did not even bother to manufacture a convincing fraud.

The lead agency involved in fabricating the accusations against El-Halabi is Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police. The prosecution’s entire case, such as it is, is based on alleged “secret evidence” which the defence is not even allowed to see. The entire process is a farce.

Khalil El-Halabi, Mohammed’s father, has told me that the Israeli military court has imposed ever-greater restrictions on his son’s legal team as time has gone on. Not only has the court banned his lawyers from accessing court transcripts of previous hearings, says Khalil, but – extraordinarily – it has even sought to ban them from writing down their own notes and summaries of the proceedings in order to prepare legal arguments.

In May, the court imposed these restrictions at the request of Shin Bet. Soon after, Khalil explained to me in an email, Shin Bet officers “requested to review defence counsel’s computer and delete any materials they deemed confidential (defence counsel refused this request).” The restrictions “include that he is not allowed to make copies of or quote from the trial transcripts of previous hearings, nor even make written notes to himself that include such quotes … the prosecution at one point threatened to file a criminal complaint and have him arrested for preparing his own notes on his own computer.”

Khalil’s emails make for grim reading. But they are also full of determination to see justice done.

Earlier this month, the campaign to release Mohammed El-Halabi received a boost from the United Nations. Having examined the case, a group of UN human rights experts – led by Special Rapporteur in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Michael Lynk – demanded that Israel should give El-Halabi a fair trial or release him immediately.

“Mr El-Halabi’s arrest, interrogation and trial is not worthy of a democratic state,” the experts said in a press release. “Israeli authorities must grant him the full rights of a fair trial, or else release him unconditionally. What is happening to Mr. El-Halabi bears no relation to the trial standards we expect from democracies, and is part of a pattern where Israel uses secret evidence to indefinitely detain hundreds of Palestinians.”

This is couched in diplomat-speak: in a roundabout way, these UN experts are basically saying that Israel is, in effect, not a democracy. The colonial-settler state’s abuse of El-Halabi is only the latest example in the growing catalogue of evidence which proves that to be the case.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East