Palestinian humanitarian hero exposes five years of an unfair Israeli trial
After over five years and 164 court sessions, the Israeli judiciary is expected to issue a verdict in the coming months as to the innocence or guilt of a Palestinian humanitarian official. Mohammad El Halabi the former director of the World Vision humanitarian program in Gaza was arrested back in June 2016. At the time Israeli media said he was responsible for transferring millions of humanitarian dollar funds from the government of Australia to what they said “terrorist” organizations. World Vision and the Australian government have since carried out intensive thorough audits and found absolutely no truth to the accusation.
An exclusive interview carried out with the help of lawyers working for the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club made available to this reporter reveals a much more glaring violation of the presumption of innocence and a coordinated effort by the Israeli prosecution and the judiciary to keep El Halabi in jail for as long as possible in order to force him to plead guilty in return for his release.
“The Israelis were clearly unhappy with the huge work that was done by our humanitarian agency especially after the three wars on Gaza. They told me this affects the effectiveness of the blockade that they were carrying out against Gaza,” El Halabi says in answer to why he thinks he was targeted. El Halabi who had won the UN’s coveted Humanitarian Hero Award in 2012 said that Israel had no proof to back their charges and therefore they kept offering him release of jail in return for his acceptance of guilt. “The first plea offer I was offered was immediately after my charge sheet was presented to the court. They suggested that I serve 6–10 months in return for pleading guilty to the charge of funding Palestinian factions from the funds of the humanitarian agency I work for and I refused this because I didn’t. Again, I was offered the same 10 months in September 2016. In March 2017 I was offered the same in return for the 17 months that I was in jail I have been offered and I rejected tens of offers and I rejected all of them. All these offers wanted me to admit funding Palestinian organizations from humanitarian aid. they were after international humanitarian organization in an effort to tighten the blockade on Gaza.”
Perhaps the most damming part of the leaked interview with the incarcerated Palestinian humanitarian worker is in the way the Israeli prosecution allegedly meddled with evidence. “The biggest problem was the contradictions in the evidence between original documents of their own evidence which shows the forgery in the translation from Arabic to Hebrew. They fabricated the evidence that is connected to what the collaborator claimed. All evidence that was presented was written by the collaborator in his own handwriting and then it was forged in translation.” El Halabi says that he and his lawyer Maher Hanna a member of the Israeli Baer Association have since submitted a forgery complaint to the Israel Police Fraud unit. “The court had slapped unprecedented gag orders against the defense lawyer barring him from saying anything publicly or even taking the documents presented in the court to his office. In fact, the prosecution asked for and the court accepted that the closing argument is printed on the prosecutor’s own computer,” El Halabi said.
The only physical evidence that was largely spoken about in the Israeli media and generally in the charge sheet against El Halabi was never produced in court. “We never imported the metal bridges which they talk about and which are banned from entry into Gaza.” El Halabi says that the prosecutor talked about hundreds and thousands of tons of metal that they claim we imported and were given to Palestinian factions. This claim was never supported by simple evidence of when the iron was imported. Israel controls all border crossings and they could have easily provided this information. The fact is no such iron import of what they are talking about was ever made by us,” says El Halabi.
The Palestinian humanitarian worker from Gaza says flatly that the Israeli court has been hostile in dealing with his lawyer while giving all the requests of the prosecutor. “The prosecutor publicly kept threatening me that the court will continue to be delayed in a way to force me to make a plea so as not to show that the state of Israel has been lying. All the decision of the court has been to protect the Shabak (intelligence service) and the collaborator.”
When asked how much was he allowed to sign as director of World Vision’s Gaza office EL Halabi replied that “the maximum amount I was allowed to spend by myself was $300. The entire Gaza office’s maximum amount that it can spend after the approval of the operations director and financial director in Jerusalem is $15,000.” Israel claimed and proclaimed in the Israeli and international media that El Halabi passed to Hamas’s millions of dollars intended for humanitarian work. Former Jerusalem director of World Vision Australian Alex Snary who worked with El Halabi for six years sent a letter of support saying “Mohammad was passionate about helping the children and communities in Gaza and worked tirelessly to constantly improve the effectiveness of World Vision’s program in Gaza and he worked hard to try to ensure nothing would jeopardize the future of the program.” Snary noted in his letter to Mohammad’s father Khalil El Halabi that “Mohammad was well aware of the financial sensitivity with regards Hamas and insisted that his team maintain strict adherence to the rigorous World Vision and donor country financial policies and procedures and US anti-terror legislation. In addition, Mohammad introduced changes to ensure World Vision did not partner with any local organizations in Gaza that might be influenced politically by Hamas and enforced strict vetting procedures for the leaders and board members of such organizations.
Despite the positive letter from the World Vision director, El Halabi reflected some bitterness towards the organization he worked for. “To be honest I am not happy with the silence of my organization which had a negative effect on me. I appreciate that many of the organization’s staff came and testified on my behalf. My salary was stopped since my arrest and my family has financially suffered and has been forced to depend on help.”
Not only was El Halabi wrongly held for so long but some of the basic rights of a prisoner were denied. “In five long years, my family has visited me only 10 times. Once my mother twice from my children these were organized by the International Red cross. International law stipulates regular visitations by families normally once or twice a month.
Yet despite all this suffering El Halabi still wants to be back in Gaza doing humanitarian work and is even open to helping any Israeli needing help. “When I am released, I will continue my humanitarian work which I grew up on. I am convinced of the importance of humanitarian work to all without discrimination based on gender or any other basis. I am sure that if I am known of an Israeli needy family, I would provide the same kind of help as I would to a Palestinian family. I don’t care about the political backgrounds of people and my message to the world is that justice and not hate is the way to build bridges of peace.”