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Israel says Gaza World Vision director diverted millions to Hamas’s military wing

Mohammed el-Halabi, the Gaza director of World Vision, was indicted Aug. 4 in the Israeli city of Beersheva. (Dudu Grunshpan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The Gaza head of the U.S.-based humanitarian aid organization World Vision funneled as much as $7 million a year over the past 10 years to Hamas's terror activities, Israel's domestic security agency said Thursday.

The Shin Bet said the aid group’s Gaza director, Mohammed el-Halabi, is an active figure in Hamas’s military wing. He was indicted by Israeli authorities Thursday, accused of diverting some 60 percent of World Vision’s annual budget for Gaza to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that rules the coastal enclave. He was charged with transferring money and working with a terror group.

Hamas is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since 2009.

In addition to the $7 million a year in funds transferred to Hamas coffers, Shin Bet said, Halabi also handed over to Hamas piles of cash -- an additional $1.5 million a year. The Israelis also said he gave Hamas $800,000 taken from a United Kingdom donation to help build a Hamas military base. The money was designated for civilian projects in the Gaza Strip, Israeli authorities said.

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World Vision is among the largest Christian charities in the world and receives considerable funding from the United Nations and Western governments. Operating in more than 100 countries, it has a budget of $2.6 billion.

In a statement Thursday, the charity said it was "shocked to learn of the charges" against Halabi and called for Israel to facilitate a fair legal process.

“World Vision is a Christian relief, development and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty and injustice,” the charity said in the statement. It has been working in Israel and the Palestinian territories for more than 40 years.

Halabi was arrested at the Erez Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on June 15. During its investigation, the Shin Bet said Halabi admitted to being a member of Hamas since his youth and said he had received military training in the early 2000s. He said that he had been assigned by Hamas to infiltrate World Vision and that shortly after being hired, he began diverting money to the group.

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“He established and promoted humanitarian projects and fictitious agricultural associations that acted as cover for the transfer of moneys to Hamas,” the Shin Bet said. “Examples of these projects and associations include: greenhouse construction; restoration of agricultural lands; psychological and public health projects for Gaza residents; aid to fishermen; a treatment center for the physically and mentally disabled; and farmers’ associations. All of these projects and associations were used to transfer funds to Hamas.”

Halabi’s brother Hamed el-Halabi said his brother has been working for World Vision for 13 years and has managed the Gaza branch for the past 10.

“Mohammed is very practical,” Halabi said. “He is a workaholic person; he travels a lot, so I don’t believe that he had time to meet with Hamas or any of its other factions.”

Halabi also said that World Vision had recently looked into the financial situation of its office in Gaza and spent about a month auditing documents, “without finding anything.”

A spokesman for Hamas in Gaza said that Israel’s accusations were simply “propaganda.” Hazem Qasem said that international organizations worked freely in Gaza and that Hamas did not interfere with their work or budgets.

“Israeli security services are using this issue to calm the Israeli society, while it is not true at all,” Qasem said. “Israel can arrest anybody at the Erez Crossing and claim he is a Hamas activist, but that doesn’t mean it is true.”

Balousha reported from Gaza.

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