The trial sheds light on the Israeli justice system’s handling of sensitive security cases, with the defense team having limited access to evidence, which was also not made public. Critics say the courts too often side with the evidence presented by the Israeli security organization.
“It’s unthinkable,” el-Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, said of the length of the sentence. “They insist that injustice will continue throughout the trial.”
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 largest donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, came to similar conclusions in its own review.
In a statement, World Vision said the verdict was in stark contrast to the evidence and facts of the case.
“The arrest, the six-year trial, the unjust sentence and this sentence are emblematic of actions hampering 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 help Palestinians.”
In June, the 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, participating in militant exercises and carrying a weapon.
It said it diverted “millions” of dollars, as well as equipment, from World Vision and its donors to Hamas every year. It said Hamas used the money for militant activities, as well as for child support, food aid and Quran memorization competitions 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 made under duress to an informant and should not have been admitted as evidence. He also said the defense team has been given “very limited access” to the evidence.
“The court has left no stone unturned in this case,” said prosecutor Moran Gez, adding that the prosecutor had demanded a prison sentence of 16 to 21 years.
Hanna said el-Halabi planned to appeal the verdict and the verdict to the country’s Supreme Court. Hanna said el-Halabi has turned down several plea offers on principle that would have allowed him to walk free.
Israeli authorities have repeatedly said they have evidence that Hamas had infiltrated the aid group and diverted money from needy Gazans. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.
Critics say Israel often relies on dubious informants. They allege that Israel defames groups that provide aid or other aid to Palestinians to support the nearly 55-year military occupation of land the Palestinians want for a future state.
Israel says it supports the work of aid agencies, but must prevent donor funds from falling into the hands of armed groups such as Hamas who do not recognize it and attack its citizens.
Last year, Israel banned six Palestinian civil society organizations over alleged ties to terror and earlier this month closed the West Bank offices of some of them. Israel has provided little evidence to back up its allegations. Nine European countries have dismissed Israel’s accusations against the groups over a lack of evidence.
Following el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision has suspended operations in Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians live under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed when Hamas seized power nearly 15 years ago. Israel says the restrictions are necessary to contain Hamas, while critics view them as a form of collective punishment.
World Vision worked with several Western donor countries on an independent audit of its activities in Gaza. A team of about a dozen attorneys, including several former US assistant attorneys, reviewed nearly 300,000 emails and conducted more than 180 interviews. Forensic auditors searched almost every financial transaction at World Vision from 2010 to 2016.
In July 2017, they submitted a more than 400-page report of their findings to World Vision, which shared it with donor governments. World Vision said it offered the report to Israel, but Israeli authorities refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
According to a lead investigator, the report found no evidence that el-Halabi had ties to Hamas or diverted money. Instead, it found that el-Halabi had enforced internal controls and instructed employees to avoid anyone suspected of having links with Hamas, the investigator said.