BEERSHEBA, Israel (AP) — An Israeli court on Tuesday sentenced the Gaza director of a major international charity to 12 years in prison after the court earlier convicted him of terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which independent investigations found no proof of wrongdoing.
Mohammed el-Halabi, the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision, was arrested in 2016 and accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic militant group Hamas that rules the territory. The trial, and his prolonged detention, have further strained relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations that provide aid to Palestinians. The sentence is likely to continue to affect those ties.
The trial sheds light on the way Israel's legal system handles sensitive security cases, with the defense team given only limited access to evidence, which was also not made public. Critics say the courts too often side with the evidence brought forward by Israel's security establishment.
“It's inconceivable,” el-Halabi's lawyer, Maher Hanna, said of the length of the sentence. “They insist that injustice will persist throughout the whole process."
Both el-Halabi and World Vision have denied the allegations and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas. Australia, which was the biggest single donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, came to similar conclusions in its own review.
In a statement, World Vision said the sentence stood in sharp contrast to the evidence and facts of the case.
“The arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and this sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank," the group said. "It adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the sentence in a statement, saying Israel would continue to prevent “any diversion of humanitarian funds for terrorist purposes.” It also said it was committed to cooperating with and facilitating the work of aid groups, including World Vision, in a way that didn't violate security considerations.
In June, the district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba said el-Halabi was guilty of several charges, including membership in a terror organization, providing information to a terror group, taking part in militant exercises and carrying a weapon.
It said he diverted “millions” of dollars every year, as well as equipment, from World Vision and its donors to Hamas. It said Hamas used the funds for militant activities, as well as children’s counseling, food aid and Quran memorization contests for its supporters. Pipes and nylon diverted to Hamas were used for military purposes, it said.
The court appeared to rely heavily on a confession by el-Halabi that has not been made public. Hanna, his lawyer, has said the confession was given under duress to an informant and should not have been admitted as evidence. He also said the defense team was granted “very limited access” to the evidence.
“The court left no stone unturned in this case,” said prosecutor Moran Gez, who added that the prosecution had asked for a 16 to 21 year sentence.
Hanna said el-Halabi intended to appeal the verdict and the sentence to the country’s Supreme Court. Hanna said el-Halabi turned down several plea bargain offers on principle that would have allowed him to walk free.
Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they have proof that Hamas had infiltrated the aid group and was diverting funds from needy Gazans. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.
Critics say Israel often relies on questionable informants. They allege that Israel smears groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians in order to shore up its nearly 55-year military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.
Rights lawyers also criticize what they say is a relationship that is too cozy between the courts and the security system, which leads to an imbalance in how evidence is treated and assessed.
“It’s not this objective courthouse where two sides can sit together and discuss and argue,” said Adi Mansour of the legal rights group Adalah. “It is an unequal situation where the court sides with the security agencies and the state.”
Israel says it supports the work of aid organizations but must prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups like Hamas that do not recognize it and attack its citizens. It views its courts as independent and objective.
Last year, Israel outlawed six Palestinian civil society groups over alleged terror ties and earlier this month shuttered the West Bank offices of some of them. Israel has provided little evidence to back up its accusations. Nine European countries have rejected Israel’s charges against the groups, citing a lack of evidence.
After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza, where over 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas seized power nearly 15 years ago. Israel says the restrictions are needed to contain Hamas, while critics view them as a form of collective punishment.
An independent audit of World Vision's activities in Gaza found no evidence that el-Halabi was affiliated with Hamas or had diverted any funds. Instead, it found that el-Halabi had enforced internal controls and ordered employees to avoid anyone suspected of Hamas ties.
Associated Press writer Emily Rose contributed to this report from Jerusalem.