Gazans, NGO question Israeli charges against aid worker

Joe Dyke
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A Palestinian girl stands at the entrance of club for children set up by the Christian charity World Vision, in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, on August, 16 2016

A Palestinian girl stands at the entrance of club for children set up by the Christian charity World Vision, in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, on August, 16 2016 (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Beit Lahia (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - His company is accused of helping to divert millions of dollars in funds to Hamas, but Gaza businessman Saqer Alatar insists he barely knows the NGO worker at the centre of the storm.

"I only know what he looks like. Maybe I wished him good morning once," Alatar said at his Gaza offices as a tractor lifted potatoes into a pickup truck nearby.

"I don't even have his number on my cellphone."

'He' is Mohammed al-Halabi, the head of the Gaza office of Christian charity World Vision who is facing trial in Israel for working for its enemy Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip.

But various people involved with aid programmes in Gaza, including Alatar, as well as the US-based charity and those who know Halabi have told AFP the allegations against him -- at least those made public -- do not add up.

Calls have mounted for Israel to try Halabi in public, with proceedings so far held in secret due to what Israel calls sensitive security information.

The dramatic claim that Halabi siphoned off $7.2 million per year to Hamas is not in the official charge sheet and it is unclear if Israel has backed away from it.

"The place in which evidence is presented and weighed is the court, not the media," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told AFP.

Israeli authorities say Halabi's case and another involving a United Nations staffer in Gaza show Hamas systematically exploits aid programmes.

"It's like when you catch a serial killer. The question of whether he killed 50 people or 25 people is not really relevant is it?" Nahshon said earlier to Australia's ABC network.

- 'Humanitarian hero' -

Halabi's family is well known in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave of 1.9 million people.

His father Khalil is a former Gaza head of education for the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and has met with UN chief Ban Ki-moon and John Kerry, the family said.

In 2014, the younger Halabi featured in a UN campaign on "humanitarian heroes". He travelled the world for World Vision and speaks near-perfect English.

In one picture on Facebook, he appears grinning in the Australian parliament.

But on August 4, when they announced Halabi's arrest, Israeli authorities said he had diverted $7.2 million of the NGO's budget each year since 2010 to Hamas, including its military wing.

The Islamist group, declared a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union, has fought three wars against Israel since 2008.

Halabi's first pre-trial hearing was held Tuesday in a closed court, with no journalists or even World Vision staff allowed to attend.

His lawyer told AFP she could be jailed for discussing the allegations.

The NGO has questioned the charges, saying it has rigorous mechanisms to prevent such abuse.

A World Vision source said an external investigator was brought in after one of its accountants fired in 2015 made allegations against Halabi, including Hamas links.

The probe found no evidence of wrongdoing, the source said.

Halabi's family believes the accountant, who has left Gaza, is now acting as a witness in the Israeli case.

World Vision's global chief Kevin Jenkins told AFP the scale of the allegations was "very difficult to reconcile" with reality.

Any payment over $80 needed two signatures, with anything over $15,000 signed off by the national office in Jerusalem, World Vision said.

The German and Australian governments, as donors, have additional mechanisms including external audits and they have found no major concerns.

World Vision's projects aided nearly 40,000 children in Gaza last year, according to the NGO, with efforts ranging from agricultural development to summer schools.

- Purchasing power -

One of the main allegations in the charge sheet is that Halabi rigged World Vision's purchasing system so "bids for the execution of nearly all projects would be won by one of two companies," including Alatar's agricultural business.

The companies overcharged World Vision and gave the money back to Halabi for Hamas, it says.

Asked by AFP journalists who visited his factory in northern Gaza about the allegations, Alatar reached for a cigarette and said he was unaware of them.

He argued the charges did not make sense and said he had negotiated agreements with the office in Jerusalem, not Gaza.

"Of all the international organisations in Gaza, maybe I deal with World Vision the least," said Alatar, who has not been charged in the case.

His company's annual contracts from World Vision were never worth more than $70,000 at most and some years far less, he said. They have contracts worth far more with the United Nations and other NGOs, he added.

World Vision told AFP its contracts with Alatar were worth $330,000 over 10 years, and with the other firm, Arcoma, $400,000 a five year period.

The charge sheet also alleges Halabi recruited an aid worker with Save the Children in Gaza to join Hamas -- a claim the NGO said it was investigating.

But friends of the employee told AFP that his sister, sister-in-law and three other family members were killed in a 2009 assault by Hamas on a Salafist mosque and that he is hostile to the group.

Another charge alleges that Halabi's brother Dia, a nurse with UNRWA, works for Hamas -- an allegation the family denies.

In northern Gaza, aid beneficiaries said Halabi was very hands-on and described a thorough auditing process.

"The committee member would be there and the supervising engineer," said Ayman Suboh, a farmer near the border with Israel who received aid after his fields were destroyed in the 2014 war.

"My hair would turn white as they inspected the corners, plastic sheets, one by one," he said as he tended his strawberries barely a mile away from Hamas fighters visible on a military base.