Israel’s Arrest of World Vision and UN Officials Sparks Fear of Backlash Against Aid Groups
Church leaders express concern that Israel’s recent arrest of two Palestinian officials, on charges of diverting funds to the military wing of Hamas, might unfairly tarnish uninvolved Christian agencies.
JERUSALEM — Catholic Church officials and humanitarian aid groups serving the Holy Land fear that Israel’s arrest of two Palestinian humanitarian aid workers in Gaza with diverting funds and materials to the military wing of Hamas could scare away donors and lead to Israeli restrictions over aid groups’ operations.
One worked for World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian organization; the other worked for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
In the wake of the investigations, Israel’s Foreign Ministry called on World Vision and other relief organizations providing aid to the Gaza Strip “to examine themselves and their local partners.”
Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the Register that if the allegations are confirmed, donors to a variety of aid organizations might stop giving “out of fears Hamas will benefit from the money.”
Bishop Shomali, who emphasized that the Catholic Church has no firsthand knowledge of the accused staffers’ actions or Israel’s accusations, said that just as the Church “should only help people in need, not political parties or any political or military activity, I don’t accept that donor money can go to political, military or paramilitary activity.”
Soon after the Israeli security organization Shin Bet’s Aug. 4 announcement that it had arrested Mohammed Halabi, World Vision’s operations manager in Gaza, for allegedly diverting “tens of millions of dollars” of donor aid to Hamas, the German and Australian governments said they would suspend donor aid to World Vision until the conclusion of Israel’s investigation.
Israel delivered another bombshell on Aug. 9, when it announced that Waheed Borsh, a UNDP staffer, had confessed to — among other things — delivering rubble from a UNDP project to Hamas so the latter could build a naval jetty.
Eitan Dangot, former head of the department of Israel’s Defense Ministry that deals with Palestinian territories, said the government suspects other aid workers have been collaborating with the military arm of Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel say is a terrorist organization.
“If we published two [names], just think how many there are besides. And there are for sure,” Dangot said during a press briefing.
World Vision is one of the world’s largest Christian humanitarian aid organizations, with a worldwide budget of nearly $3 billion.
According to Shin Bet, Halabi was recruited by Hamas’s military wing in 2004 in order to “penetrate an international aid organization and exploit its resources in the Gaza Strip,” funded by donors in the United States, England and Australia, among others.
Those activities included the construction of “terror tunnels,” the purchase of weapons and paying the salaries of Hamas fighters, the Shin Bet said.
In an Aug. 8 statement, Kevin Jenkins, World Vision’s President and CEO, said the organization is working to “understand the truth behind the allegations laid against Mohammad El Halabi. World Vision condemns any diversion of funds from any humanitarian organization and strongly condemns any act of terrorism or support for those activities.”
Due to the seriousness of the allegations, Jenkins said, World Vision has temporarily suspended operations in Gaza.
“We are conducting a full review, including an externally conducted forensic audit, and will remain fully engaged with the investigation that is under way. We will examine all the evidence behind the charges and from those who independently examine our accountability standards. If any of these allegations are proven to be true, we will take swift and decisive action. Unfortunately, we still have not seen any of the evidence,” he said.
In the meantime, Jenkins questioned Israeli claims that Halabi funneled up to $50 million when its entire Gaza budget was roughly $22.5 million. Furthermore, it said Halabi became the operations manager in October 2014, yet the charges mention a decade of misconduct.
“It is tragic that this issue is taking us away from our work on important issues of injustice and poverty affecting billions of children around the world,” Jenkins said.
In a statement, UNDP said it was “greatly concerned by the allegations” and vowed to undertake “a thorough internal review of the processes and circumstances surrounding the allegation.”
An Israeli government spokesman said that, despite its concern over the “misuse of funds” for what he called Hamas’ “terror campaign” against Israeli citizens, “our intention is to allow for the providing of this aid, while at the same time prevent[ing] terror operatives from utilizing it to wage terror against us.” He did not elaborate on ways the government plans to prevent this.
A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli government body that deals with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, told the Register, “Currently, there are no modifications in the civil policy towards the Gaza Strip. Furthermore, the close cooperation between Israel and the international community remains as usual.
“The collaboration between the employee of the World Vision organization and [the] Hamas terrorist organization, as exposed last week, is a serious violation of the agreements with Israel, and we expect the international community supporting Gaza to make thorough evaluations in their efforts, ensuring that their resources reach the right destination — the residents of Gaza — and not Hamas in its terror agenda.”
Despite these assurances, Father Raed Abusahlia, a Catholic priest and general director of Caritas Jerusalem, a prominent Catholic humanitarian aid organization that has been serving Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere for decades, expressed concern that the government’s accountability measures could serve to disrupt or curtail the activities of other relief organizations due to its World Vision-related suspicions.
“I’m concerned. I don’t want the Israeli authorities to place restrictions, as if we are all suspect,” he said.
Father Abusahlia said Caritas “is entrusted to give every penny to the poor. Our donors — they trust us. They know we follow protocols and procedures and procurement policies. Most of our donors are Church-linked, and we also receive funding from governments.”
The priest noted that “80%” of Gazans live below the poverty line. “They rely on humanitarian aid.”
Speaking from Jordan, Issa Tarazi, executive director of the Middle East Council of Churches, said donors “need to continue to help these people,” many of whom have been homeless since Hamas’ war with Israel during the summer of 2014.
Tarazi said his organization, with its various partners, performs monitoring, evaluation and follow-up to ensure all donations are used for the purpose to which they were designated.
“We provide no military aid. We don’t support that,” Tarazi said. “We support only needy people.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.