One of the most challenging experiences in my time in World Vision was the arrest of our Gaza program manager, Mohammed el-Halabi, while crossing the border between Israel and Gaza in June 2016. Nobody was told why he was arrested and for 50 days he was interrogated by Israeli secret services without a lawyer.
This week will mark five years since his arrest and he is still in an Israeli jail, on charges that don’t make sense and without any evidence presented to support them. So, we have to ask – why is Israel keeping a humanitarian hero behind bars?
My Australian colleague Conny Lenneberg, who was responsible for all World Vision work in the Middle East, travelled with Mohammed many times in the 10 years he worked with World Vision, visiting development programs across Gaza and the West Bank. An agronomist by training, he worked hard – supporting children traumatised by war and helping fishing and farming families to improve their livelihoods.
Mohammed, a father of five, always wore a smile, was assiduously apolitical, eternally optimistic and usually had a child or two clipping at his heels whenever he was out in the projects – his community obviously loved and respected him. His work was so impressive that in 2014 he was named a humanitarian hero by the United Nations, and became World Vision’s manager in Gaza.
When Israel finally announced its charges against Mohammed, we were baffled. He was accused of diverting $US50 million in aid money to Hamas and other militant groups, but the accusation simply didn’t add up. World Vision’s entire Gaza operating budget for the time Mohammed worked for us was only about half that. Moreover, we have stringent controls over field finances, including regular PWC audits of all our books, and you can be sure that the Australian Government has a mountain of checks and balances on aid monies.
Sadly because of the gravity of the accusations, World Vision and the government acted in the only way we could – suspending our much-needed programs to Gaza and commissioned our own investigations. All of these investigations found nothing. In fact, an independent audit by one of the global accounting firms found evidence that, contrary to the charges, Mohammed had been very proactive in protecting the organisation from any exposure to pressures from militant groups or Hamas to divert humanitarian resources to them.
If Israel had any evidence to support their accusations, Mohammed’s trial would have been completed well within a year. But it is now five years since his arrest, and Israel has not presented any objective evidence to support their charges. The trial has been in its ‘concluding phases’ since December last year – just one of the aspects that make a mockery of a fair trial.
Last year UN experts stated “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”.Advertisement
So why is Mohammed still behind bars?
Mohammed has resolutely refused to plead guilty – even when he was offered a plea deal that would have seen him released by now. He maintains he is innocent and will not trade his personal freedom in exchange for a slur on the integrity of himself or World Vision. So, he languishes locked up in a Kafkaesque process without a final verdict.
Israel has not only accused Mohammed of wrongdoing – they have suggested that World Vision and indeed the Australian Government have allowed money to go to terrorists. They suggest that part of all humanitarian aid to Gaza ends up in the hands of extremists. One wonders if this is a larger campaign to impugn any group that seeks to respond to the humanitarian needs of those who have suffered under a military occupation for decades.
It seems such accusations have led to the US and Australian Governments reducing their aid to Palestine. In recent years Australia has cut all bilateral aid through the World Bank to Palestine, halved our commitment through UN bodies, and has just axed the major NGO partnership program that was doing great work supporting farmers throughout Palestine. The humanitarian needs of Gazans are critical and like people suffering in conflict zones anywhere in the world, we have a responsibility to respond, to alleviate suffering and strengthen local resilience.
These are the ideals that motivate humanitarians like myself, Conny and Mohammed. In Gaza this work involved re-establishing agriculture disrupted by the conflict, establishing new markets for produce, including organic strawberries exported through Israeli traders to Europe, providing critical supplies to hospitals, enabling fishermen to repair their boats and nets, widows and young women to establish small businesses to support their families, and most critically, working with the war-traumatised Gazan children to enable them to heal and re-engage with education.
The longer Israel keeps dragging out these court proceedings, the more Australia’s silence makes us complicit. It is now more than four years since the government review found no evidence Australian aid money was diverted. Australia clearly has a skin in the game and should be letting Israel know it is watching. The government must be clear that in the absence of any evidence, it is time that Mohammad el-Halabi, a recognised humanitarian hero, is acquitted and released back to his young family, community, and vocation.
Tim Costello is the former CEO of World Vision.