Israeli court finds Gaza aid worker guilty
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Israeli court finds Gaza aid worker guilty

An Israeli court has convicted a Gaza aid worker on several terrorism charges in a high-profile case in which his employer, independent accountants, and the Australian government say they have found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Mohammed el-Halabi, the Gaza director of the international Christian charity World Vision, was arrested in 2016 and charged with funneling tens of millions of dollars to the Islamist militant group Hamas that rules the area.

Israeli court finds Gaza aid worker guilty

The trial and his lengthy detention have further strained relations between Israel and humanitarian organizations providing Palestinian aid.

He and World Vision have denied the allegations, and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas.

His lawyer, Maher Hanna, has said el-Halabi has turned down several plea offers on the principle that would have allowed him to walk free.

El-Halabi has not yet been convicted.

World Vision said it would appeal the ruling, which was based largely on classified information that has not been made public but has been shared with the defense.

The court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba said el-Halabi was charged with several charges, including membership in a terror organization, providing information to a terror group, participating in militant exercises, and carrying a weapon.

It said he diverted “millions” of dollars and 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 said it was not convinced by World Vision’s testimony that it had strict controls in place that would have prevented the misuse of such aid.

The court said the full 254-page decision is “confidential and cannot be made public”.

It appeared to rely heavily on a confession by el-Halabi that had not been made public.

His lawyer has said the confession was made under duress to an informant and should not have been admitted as evidence.

Speaking to reporters right after the verdict, Hanna said he hadn’t read the full decision.

Sharon Marshall, a spokeswoman for World Vision who has been following the case closely, said there were “irregularities in the process and a lack of substantive and public evidence”.

She said the charity supports el-Halabi’s intention to appeal and called for a “fair and transparent” process.

“We strongly condemn any act of terrorism or support for such activities and reject any attempt to divert humanitarian resources or exploit the work of humanitarian organizations operating anywhere,” she said.

The Christian charity operates in nearly 100 countries and annually distributes $2.5 billion ($A3.6 billion) in aid.

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.

In a statement, Israel’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the verdict, saying it “continues to support international efforts to provide aid to the people of Gaza”.

After el-Halabi’s arrest, World Vision suspended its activities in Gaza.

World Vision has worked with several donor countries to prepare an independent audit of its activities in Gaza.

It declined to name the accountants due to a nondisclosure agreement. Still, last year The Guardian newspaper identified them as the international accounting firm Deloitte and DLA Piper, a global law firm.

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 the nondisclosure agreement.

Brett Ingerman, a lawyer with DLA Piper who led the investigation, confirmed his involvement. Earlier this year the report found no evidence that el-Halabi had links to Hamas or diverted money.

Instead, he said it found that el-Halabi had enforced internal controls and instructed employees to avoid anyone suspected of having links with Hamas.

The Australian government conducted its own investigation and came to similar conclusions.

Australia was the largest donor to World Vision’s humanitarian work in Gaza, raising $4.4 million in the previous three fiscal years before el-Halabi’s arrest.

There was no immediate comment on the verdict from Australian officials.