Every day, at least once and sometimes more, Khalil el-Halabi logs on to Twitter and posts pictures, videos, and appeals on behalf of his son Mohammad.
Tagging people he believes might come to his aid—human rights lawyers, politicians, and journalists—he calls for justice and mercy. On January 4, he posted, “To our Israeli neighbours. My son will be brought to court for the 154th time Tuesday facing a charge he has not committed without any credible evidence.”
He closed the tweet with a quote from Amos 5:24: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Khalil’s son Mohammad el-Halabi is the former Gaza director for World Vision International. He was arrested by Israeli authorities in 2016 on allegations of aiding terrorists by diverting millions of dollars from the evangelical humanitarian aid group to arm militants in Gaza—charges Mohammad el-Halabi, still employed at World Vision as a zonal manager, adamantly denies.
After more than four years, Halabi is still awaiting justice. He hasn’t had the chance to defend himself or even see much of the evidence against him. Human rights experts with the United Nations say Halabi has also been denied access to his lawyer and tortured. His case is causing consternation among politicians and legal experts and has cast a cloud over evangelical organizations doing charitable work in Gaza and the West Bank.
“World Vision has not seen any credible evidence supporting the charges,” said Kevin Jenkins, World Vision International’s president and CEO, in a statement immediately after the arrest. “None of the allegations against Mohammad el-Halabi have been tested in an open court, and we support the ongoing presumption of his innocence.”
Halabi was hired as a program director in 2006. The Palestinian became one of the approximately 150 employees serving nearly 40,000 children in Gaza, where the evangelical aid organization had worked since 1975. For the next decade, Halabi managed a variety of programs, focusing on everything from helping fishermen increase their household income to organizing classes for children.
A father of five, Halabi felt an extra passion for projects to keep children safe and make them feel valued. That work was especially challenging given patterns of domestic abuse in the region and the dangers of the ongoing conflicts between Gaza and Israel.
“The most rewarding part is when we manage to restore the smiles of children,” Halabi told World Vision in 2014. “Today I met the children whose houses were totally demolished and lost at least one of their beloved people, yet they are singing for peace in one of World Vision’s Child Friendly Spaces, which is unbelievable.”
Halabi was made regional director in 2014, amid an intense bout of fighting that destroyed more than 12,000 homes and killed more than 550 Gazan children.
“Anyone who visited Gaza saw his humanitarian heart,” his father told CT. “They could see how loved he was by the community.”
In his first year as regional director, the UN recognized him as a “humanitarian hero” and World Vision honored him as “humanitarian of the year.”
Israeli government officials claim that the whole time, Halabi was working for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist political organization and militant group. Officials allege Halabi was infiltrating World Vision for access to international funds, and when he became director, he diverted millions of dollars from children in need to militants intent on attacking Israel.
Halabi was arrested in June 2016 while crossing a border between a Hamas-controlled area and Israel. An unnamed senior official with Israel’s internal security service told The New York Times that Halabi stole $40 to $50 million, giving the money to build a Hamas military base and sending food to Islamist fighters.
The allegations are baffling, according to World Vision. As regional director, Halabi didn’t have signing authority for more than $15,000. And over the course of 10 years, World Vision’s cumulative operating budget in Gaza was about $22.5 million, so it wouldn’t have been possible to misappropriate twice that amount in less than two years.
An independent forensic audit commissioned by World Vision did not find any irregularities in the Gaza budget. Additional reporting from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Australian and German governments corroborated the results of the audit, finding no evidence of diverted funds.
In fact, a World Vision spokesperson said the independent audit showed “substantial evidence to the contrary, showing how Mohammad worked to ensure World Vision avoided improper interactions with Hamas.”
Nonetheless, World Vision has suspended operations in Gaza until further notice, and Halabi is still imprisoned, enduring endless delays and deferrals.
Maher Hanna, Halabi’s attorney, claims that Halabi was questioned for 50 days after his arrest without access to legal representation.
During that time, Hanna said, he was deprived of sleep and hung from a ceiling, which the International Committee of the Red Cross defines as torture.
Once Hanna started representing Halabi, the lawyer faced a labyrinthian legal process and unnecessary impediments, ranging from the poor translations of court documents to lack of access to critical evidence. The courts require that he receive permission from security officials to review evidence, and his requests are frequently denied.
The Israeli Justice Ministry said the protocol has been put in place because of “considerations related to the security of the state” and there is “no alternative.”
The treatment of Halabi has drawn sharp criticism from human rights advocates. A panel of experts at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a strongly worded statement that said treatment of the World Vision director is “not worthy of a democratic state.”
The experts called for Israel to either finish trying Halabi or release him.
Law professor Michael Lynk, one of the experts who contributed to the statement, said, “It may well be that the Israeli government is ready for prosecution and has a justifiable case to bring to trial.” But the authorities need to make their case in court.
“One would...expect full display of the evidence,” Lynk said, and “that the trial is going to be open—or at least open to the fullest extent possible—so that the public can know that what’s going on in the proceedings, that they are fair and compliant with the basic protections that any rule-of-law country would offer to its citizens.”
French human rights expert Agnès Callamard, who also contributed to the statement, said she has grave concern for Halabi’s well-being. She said she is not attacking Israel, but is insisting the state live up to its own standards.
“Israel is duty bound to apply the human rights conventions it has adopted and ratified,” Callamard said. “Our plea is simply that Israel uphold its own laws—its own obligations to fair trial and the other applicable standards. That is not a political message. It is a call for justice to be upheld.”
In the meantime, Halabi continues to sit in prison. His case has dragged on, with more than 150 trial hearings, mostly held in private. And World Vision’s Gaza projects are still out of operation.
For some critics of humanitarian aid to Palestinians, the case is evidence that World Vision is anti-Israel. The Gatestone Institute, a controversial conservative US think tank, has accused the evangelical organization of being part of a “jihad against Israel,” claiming World Vision did not care about the “needs of poor Israeli-Jewish children.”
Another group, the staunchly pro-Israel NGO Monitor, claimed World Vision had a Palestinian agenda and that the organization was “encouraging or at least condoning terrorism and incitement” in the region.
World Vision denies these charges and said it “strongly condemns any act of terrorism or support for those activities.” The charges against Halabi haven’t been proven, but World Vision also opposes the activity he is accused of, condemning “any diversion of aid funding.”
Until the trial is concluded, however, World Vision’s work in Gaza will remain on hold.
This saddens Michael Lassiter, a World Vision supporter who lives in Dallas. For him, the politics get in the way of the real issue. “No matter your perspective on Israel-Palestine, you have to be on the side of Gaza’s children,” Lassiter said, “who are growing up in desperate need of support, assistance, and compassion.”
He would like to sponsor a child in Gaza, but said he would need to know he could trust the sponsorship organization the way he trusts World Vision.
“But because of politics and accusations, Jesus’ love can’t reach people in places like Gaza right now,” he said, “and that’s a real shame.”
A World Vision spokesperson declined to comment for this article, saying the organization has heard Halabi’s trial will happen soon.
Khalil el-Halabi prays that is the case.
“I and my family trust and believe that Mohammad’s case will be ended,” he said, “and the Israeli democratic state will apologize to Mohammad about the hurt they caused to him.”
Until then, Khalil “appeals to evangelical Christians and all believers and people of faith—even the Jews and Israeli peoples” to stand with his son.
In the end, he said, “God knows that justice will win.”
Ken Chitwood is a writer and scholar of global religion living in Germany.
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