The sensationalized cases against Palestinian NGO staff have rapidly disintegrated yet more charges are continually being added, apparently in retaliation for the refusal of a plea agreement, according to his lawyers in a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
When Mohammed al-Halabi, the manager of World Vision’s Gaza operations was arrested in August 2016, the Israeli state embarked on a massive international propaganda campaign declaring that he had diverted $43 million in charitable funds to the Palestinian resistance, including a video from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing Palestinians of not caring about their people. Despite the unrealistic figures that far exceeded the total budgets of the charity and the complete lack of evidence provided for the charges, international governments such as the Australian and German governments cut off their funding to World Vision. The charity froze its operations in Gaza and over 100 Palestinian local staff were laid off from their jobs.
Now, however, al-Halabi rejected a plea bargain agreement that would have seen him imprisoned for three years – a strikingly short sentence that indicates charges far below the original, sensationalized media releases. Al-Halabi’s trial is closed to the public, diplomats and journalists, although an open hearing is scheduled to take place today. In apparent retaliation, al-Halabi is now being charged with “passing information to the enemy” and of “aiding and abetting the enemy in a time of war,” with the enemy in question being Palestinians in Gaza. Al-Halabi is, himself, of course, a Palestinian living under occupation in Gaza.
“But five months since El Halabi’s trial began, his legal team say they still have not been given the full evidence file against him.
Despite the seriousness of the initial allegations, the ABC has learnt that Israeli authorities recently offered El Halabi a three-year plea deal.
However, the World Vision official rejected the deal and his legal team said he was planning on pleading not guilty.
A source close to El Halabi’s legal team told the ABC the new charges were the result of the Israeli authorities failing to ‘pressure’ him into accepting a plea deal.”
Meanwhile, fellow Palestinian NGO worker, Waheed Bursh of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), whose arrest was also hailed with a similar media display, was recently sentenced to seven months in Israeli prison and was in fact released today – a sentence that clearly indicates a lack of serious or severe charges. The original charges against Bursh accused him of in some way mishandling the rubble left behind by the massive Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2014 for the benefit of the Palestinian resistance. The UNDP itself reaffirmed that the rubble in question was directed as agreed to a civilian area and there “was no diversion.”
Bursh is listed on the Israeli prosecution’s list of witnesses against el-Halabi, even though he insists that he has no knowledge of any wrongdoing whatsoever by the World Vision official. “Al Bursh has already given testimony to police that he has no evidence of El Halabi committing any crimes, a point he reiterated in a special court hearing yesterday,” reported ABC.
The new charges against el-Halabi introduce financial allegations; however, far from the millions of dollars originally publicized belonging to World Vision, the new charges accuse him of donating several hundred dollars of his own money to local charities and mosques in Gaza.
ABC notes that “One incident detailed accuses El Halabi of allegedly giving ‘300 Israeli shekels on a monthly base to a charity managed by Hamas’…Another says the defendant transferred ‘hundreds of shekels during 2015-2016 to a mosque managed by Hamas’…No details are given of the ‘millions’ of dollars Israeli intelligence officials initially accused El Halabi of diverting.” 100 NIS is approximately $26 USD.
Despite the clear disintegration of the Israeli charges against el-Halabi, Bursh and international NGOs in Palestine, the Israeli government has not retracted any of its public charges, nor have international governments, including those of Australia and Germany, restored their funding to the charity. Dozens of Palestinian workers in the already-devastated Gaza Strip remain jobless.
*Updated to note Waheed Bursh was released today.