Eighteen months ago, the Gaza director of the evangelical aid organization World Vision was arrested by Israel and charged with diverting their aid to local Hamas terrorists. Today the affair remains clouded by contradictory statements, biased media coverage — and important questions no one is asking.
Israel’s indictment against Mohammed El Halabi, operations manager for World Vision in Gaza, was published on Aug. 4, 2016, seven weeks after his arrest. The Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement describing Halabi as a “major figure in the terrorist/military arm of Hamas” who gave a detailed confession to Israeli investigators. Among other things, Halabi stated that he had transferred some 60 percent of World Vision’s Gaza donations, and 40 percent of the funding earmarked for civilian projects, to Hamas military and terrorist leaders.
Aside from cash siphoned off through fraudulent projects and inflated expenses, he also mentioned delivering equipment and construction materials to Hamas warehouses disguised as World Vision facilities, redirecting food packages meant for destitute Gazans to Hamas fighters, and requiring Gazan recipients of project tenders to fork over part of their grant to Hamas. Halabi also said that he had joined Hamas years before working for the global aid organization.
WV’s two biggest donors to Gaza projects, Australia and Germany, stopped all funding. Both World Vision and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) launched immediate investigations. Germany’s action, if any, was not published.
In a statement issuing from Germany on Aug. 8, World Vision reacted in disbelief, citing their own verification processes to prevent such abuses. Those processes were not detailed; instead the organization focused on the amount Israel said was diverted ($43–50 million over 10 years), which they declared was “hard to reconcile” with their own records of a total Gaza budget of only $22.5 million for the whole decade.
At the time, KNI checked World Vision’s online reports and suggested that Gaza funding was likely much higher. Sure enough, the following month the Israeli watchdog group NGO Monitor obtained WV’s official non-profit reports and published data indicating that the charity’s income for Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza topped $133 million for the decade. It also appeared that the declared expenses left around $50 million unaccounted for.
After insisting that Halabi was completely trustworthy, World Vision suspended all Gaza activity, providing contradictory explanations. Their Gaza staff reportedly were told the shutdown was caused by a cashflow problem after Israel froze transfers from WV’s Jerusalem bank accounts, while for the rest of the world the reason was “the seriousness of the allegations laid against Mohammad El Halabi.”
In January 2017, when his trial (which started in November 2016) was opened to the public, Halabi described himself to media as “the most innocent person ever” and claimed his confession had been extracted under torture, a charge categorically denied by Israel. In response to Halabi’s refusal of a plea bargain, Israeli prosecutors added more charges previously omitted: “aiding an enemy in time of war and passing information on to the enemy,” relating to allegations that Halabi used his free movement in Israel to locate promising exit points in Israeli territory for Hamas terror tunnels.
By March, the two investigations commissioned by DFAT and World Vision released statements: no evidence of fund diversion could be found in the records.
Tellingly, the Australian Parliament reported that neither group ever published what their investigations had found.
It apparently included some bizarre expense entries noted by journalist Anthony Klan at The Australian. After World Vision Australia claimed to have no details on how its Gaza donations were used, Klan obtained the public-access files submitted to Israel’s Registrar of Non-Profits (WV Israel controls the funding to WV Gaza). The 56-page report listed vague eyebrow-raising projects like “special gifts reserve” (495,352 shekels), “transformed relationships” (416,871 shekels) and “South Gaza empowered children” (408,443 shekels), with no individual beneficiaries. Klan’s December 2016 article with the understated headline, “World Vision hazy on how it spent Gaza cash,” quoted a response from WV indicating that they knew about this list. A second report by The Australian alluded to large amounts of cash channeled from Australia through WV to PA-controlled areas that “are almost entirely hidden from public scrutiny”… a factor presumably seen also by DFAT.
Except for The Australian, global media vented its skepticism exclusively on Israel. Accepting at face value the World Vision response that they had seen no “credible” evidence of Halabi’s guilt, the reports focused on the implication: Israel had exaggerated (at best) the allegations against him. When DFAT likewise announced its failure to find a smoking gun, media turned up the heat on Israel.
ABC-Australia, the earliest source, revealed that despite the investigation results, Australia was refusing to resume aid to Gaza until Halabi’s trial ended. But the network chose to eclipse that interesting fact with a headline that DFAT had found no evidence of wrongdoing, and a subheading that insinuated Israel was bluffing: “Authorities yet to produce evidence backing claims.” Most outlets picking up the story, like the UK Guardian, posted headlines that confused the organization (never accused by Israel) with its employee: “Inquiry clears World Vision Gaza of diverting funds to Hamas.” Assisting in the echo chamber were Ha’aretz (repeating AP’s report), Christianity Today (relying on ABC-Australia), and many others.
Israel-bashing sites pounced, with sneering headlines like “Australia blows Israel’s credibility on its World Vision sham sky-high.”
Curiously, mainstream coverage also quoted Australia’s ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma while missing his corrective message. Responding to the media storm, Sharma emphasized that DFAT had not “cleared” anyone; rather, the Australian government had found “nothing to indicate any awareness on our part of Mr Halabi’s alleged wrongdoing.” (emphasis added) More significantly, he confirmed that Australian aid to Gaza would remain suspended until Halabi’s trial was concluded. No one asked why.
Perhaps the Aussies remembered that Halabi had been accused of the same crimes in 2015 by a former WV accountant. That time as well, World Vision hired an outside auditor, who found nothing suspicious. But terrorists are expert in covering their tracks (see sidebar).
As mentioned, Halabi’s trial was opened to the public in January 2017. But after only two months, the media lost interest in the outcome. The Australian Parliament’s summary of the affair noted that as of October, the trial was still running. Yet no new information was published after March 31, when the Times of Israel disclosed that the Israeli judge, Nassar Abu Taha, advised Halabi to accept another plea bargain. The lone exception was the Australian Spectator weighing in during April — incidentally, the only news source to lead with Ambassador Sharma’s statement and call out ABC-Australia for starting a fake-news chain reaction.
After that, wall-to-wall silence reigned — even in Israel.
Thus, an intriguing question arises: Why did the news hounds who so diligently scrutinized Israel’s conduct towards Muhammad El Halabi and World Vision, and so loudly called for public access to the legal proceedings, walk away from such a juicy story barely begun? Perhaps Elliot Abrams’ description of the dilemma facing Gaza aid workers (see sidebar) applies also to journalists covering Gaza news: Given the futility of reporting the truth to editors and publishers who don’t want to know, it’s “simpler” to ignore the whole thing.
That futility, however, surely doesn’t apply to our professing Christian brothers at Sojourners Magazine. Their February commentary, “Undeterred by the Facts: Why would Israel make false accusations against an evangelical humanitarian aid organization?” was so skewed it prompted the Israeli Embassy in Washington to write and protest the inaccuracies. The Sojourners author stood by his accusations, partly because he erroneously assumed that the DFAT report convinced Australia to restore its Gaza funding. (Only the letter and response are accessible; the article is blocked by a paywall.) In short, Sojourners published one hit-and-run assault on Israel’s integrity, with no attempt to monitor the ongoing developments. Their disinterest in determining whether or not the Jewish State was indeed slandering Christians suggests motives other than a quest for justice.
Another great unasked question concerns the other party professing Christian evangelical faith. World Vision has repeatedly defended the integrity of Muhammad El Halabi, insinuating that Israel has no case against him. But despite declaring that their audit had “not generated any concerns about diversion of World Vision resources,” and despite warning of “the impact on Gaza’s children and their families” caused by their shutdown, to date they have not returned to Gaza. After continual reassurance that all is well, the Australian and German donations haven’t returned either. Why? Those who know the answer aren’t talking. And media isn’t even asking.
The final question involves our Arab cousins in Gaza, both Muslims and Christians, suffering under a lawless regime while an uncaring world looks away. As a Christian organization, World Vision is theoretically committed to biblical standards of righteousness and freedom for the oppressed, with access to God’s protection when confronting evil. If they cannot lead the way to clean up the Gaza mess, who can?
SIDEBAR: THE NGO’S GAZA WOES: NO EASY ANSWERS
Can audits detect the diversion of NGO funds? Not if professional terror groups are involved.
The NGO Monitor’s Professor Gerald Steinberg pointed out one obvious problem: “No international auditing firm can independently track funds in terror enclaves. For example, cash transactions would likely not have receipts, and even if receipts existed, there would be no way to ascertain their authenticity.” Counter-terrorism teams have invested years of effort tracking Hamas in particular, due to that group’s sophisticated methods of pilfering resources from unsuspecting organizations.
Can NGOs function in Gaza with integrity? Not under the current operating standards.
In 2015 the NGO Monitor released a book-length study of the complex dilemmas faced by NGOs working in terrorist-controlled areas. The author noted (p.64–65) that the guidelines used by World Vision in Gaza either “do not address terrorism and aid diversion in the slightest,” or they offer dead-end advice like: “Look for local anticorruption champions…”; and if that fails, work out “compromises” and “concessions” with the corrupt power-brokers. When the Halabi indictment surfaced, NGO Monitor used the opportunity to remind all NGOs working in Gaza that they run the same risks as World Vision.
In fact, back in 2008 World Vision published their own survey of the difficulties involved in distributing humanitarian aid in zones ruled by warlords, entitled “Principled Pragmatism”. The document did not mention Gaza. Nor did it address the wider problem of militants stealing humanitarian aid, openly by force or secretively through collaborators.
CFR advisor Elliot Abrams, commenting on the Halabi affair among others, proposed a reason for these omissions:
It’s likely that some percentage of local [aid organization] employees in Gaza are sympathetic to Hamas — and it seems likely to me that administrators don’t want to know it. If they came face to face with it, what would they do? Fire them? Turn them in to the Israelis? Start difficult and likely very long back-and-forth communications with headquarters, which likely doesn’t want to know and won’t thank the employee who insists on revealing the truth? Simpler to be blind to what is happening.
The problem is global, and the increasing calls for more effective supervision of aid distribution don’t agree on how to confront the above dilemmas. The solution will probably require united determination from donors, workers and administrators — starting at the top.