Last week, the Israeli security agency Shin Bet accused a World Vision staffer of funneling millions to Hamas. Mohammad El Halabi, who ran World Vision’s Gaza branch, was arrested back in June.
I used to work at World Vision. For the past eight years, my wife and I have sponsored a child in Gaza. Which means it’s not just their money at stake. It’s ours. And I don’t want a penny of it falling into Hamas’ hands.
Guess what? Neither does World Vision. It would be their ultimate nightmare scenario—which is why it’s hard to imagine they’d be so careless as to allow $50 million to be stolen right under their noses.
World Vision is not perfect. They can be big and bureaucratic. They make mistakes. (Show me an NGO that doesn’t.)
But they are not stupid. One of the things I came to appreciate when I was at World Vision is just how perilous their work in Gaza is—and they know it. Not just because their staff is at risk every time there’s another war. (Though they are.) But also because even the slightest criticism of Israel’s government can lead to a backlash. It could cost them the ability to work in the Palestinian territories. They also risk antagonizing a good share of their American donor base, which is largely conservative, evangelical, and very pro-Israel.
So, money falling into Hamas’ hands? That’s something World Vision would work very hard to avoid. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t (or didn’t) happen. But there’s big, big difference between “alleged” and “proven.”
So what about the allegations against Mohammad El Halabi? Consider the following…
1. Israel detained Halabi for 50 days before bringing any charges.
They also denied access to a lawyer for at least 21 days. During this time, Halabi was interrogated without anyone present to safeguard his interests or legal rights.
2. The security agency detaining him has a history of using torture to extract confessions.
Israeli courts prohibited the “systemic use of torture” in 1999, but Shin Bet continues to use sleep deprivation, physical violence, and other means widely viewed as torture to get information out of suspects. And by the way, if you think that’s just “Palestinian propaganda,” it’s not just Palestinians who complain of being tortured. Right-wing Israeli activists have also accused Shin Bet of torturing Jewish detainees.
3. Right after the story broke, Israeli diplomats launched a propaganda war on social media.
Wanting to turn public opinion against Halabi and World Vision before any conflicting evidence could be presented, Israel’s Foreign Ministry instructed its officials to spread the accusations far and wide, treating them as if they were already establish fact. This not-subtle attempt to have Halabi declared guilty in the court of public opinion undermines his right to a fair hearing in an actual court.
So you’ve got denying access to a lawyer, a track record of torture, and using your diplomats to try the accused on Twitter. Any one of these is evidence of a disregard for the rule of law.
But there are two more things to consider…
4. Like most reputable NGOs, World Vision has safeguards in place to keep this kind of thing from happening.
In World Vision’s case, these include a recurring audit by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC). Now, it’s true safeguards can be bypassed. But the burden of proof remains on the accuser, not the accused. It’s up to Israel to document the money trail and back up the numbers they’ve been throwing around.
Which they may not be able to do, because…
5. Israel’s numbers appear not to add up.
Israeli officials have variously claimed the following amounts were diverted to Hamas:
- 60% of World Vision’s entire Gaza budget
- $50 million since 2010
- $7.2 million per year
There’s one problem. World Vision’s entire Gaza budget is reportedly $2-3 million per year. Over the past decade, they’ve allocated $22.5 million to Gaza. That’s far short of the amount Israel claims was funneled to Hamas. Even if 100% of World Vision’s budget had been diverted, it wouldn’t amount to what Israel says was stolen.
Israel also says Halabi has been diverting large sums to Hamas since at least 2010. But according to World Vision, he was only put in his current position in 2014—prior to that, he only had control over a small part of the organization’s Gaza budget.
These are big discrepancies in Israel’s story. Which begs the question: how is Halabi supposed to have diverted more of World Vision’s money than he had access to or than even exists?
The only evidence offered by Israel so far is a confession reportedly extracted from the suspect—Halabi’s lawyer disputes Israel’s claim that he confessed. Halabi has not been allowed to present his side of the story. World Vision still has not been given evidence to corroborate Israel’s allegations.
Whatever you think about the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s handling of the case against Halabi raises more questions than answers. Accusations like these could be used as a pretext for shutting down vital humanitarian work in Gaza, one of the few remaining lifelines for people trapped there. Even if the charges are eventually discredited, the damage will have been done—for World Vision and for the people they are there to serve.
World Vision should give a full accounting—and their latest statement outlines the steps they’re taking to do just that. If any amount of money fell into Hamas’ hands, the organization should act to make sure it never happens again.
But Israel’s disregard for the rule of law and the apparent holes in their case against Halabi should give us pause. At the very least, we should not accept their version of events without careful scrutiny.
For the people of Gaza more than anyone else, there’s too much at stake.
Related: World Vision’s August 4 statement on Mohammad El Halabi’s arrest
Update: World Vision’s August 8 statement
Images (top to bottom): Zyklon Nargis, World Vision Deutschland / CC BY 3.0; ISM Palestine on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0; Physicians for Human Rights on Flickr / CC BY 2.0