The Israeli government says millions of dollars in humanitarian aid sent to Gaza by the Federal Way-based nonprofit World Vision was instead diverted to the military arm of Hamas.

Share story

The Israeli government says millions of dollars in humanitarian aid sent to the Gaza Strip by the Federal Way-based nonprofit World Vision was instead diverted to the military arm of Hamas.

The allegations result from an investigation into World Vision’s Gaza operations manager, Mohammed el-Halabi, who was detained June 15 as he crossed from Israel into Gaza. On Thursday, el-Halabi was accused of secretly using the aid money to benefit Hamas, the militant group that now controls the Gaza territory.

A statement released by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called el-Halabi a “major figure” in the military wing of Hamas, and claimed that more than half of World Vision money sent to Gaza from Australia, the United States and other Western nations was “transferred to Hamas to strengthen its terrorist arm.”

A statement from World Vision said its officials were “shocked” to learn of the charges and that the Gaza programs are subject to regular internal and independent audits.

“Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true,” the statement said. “We will carefully review any evidence presented to us and take appropriate actions based on the evidence.”

The Israel security agency Shin Bet alleges that about $43 million was diverted to Hamas over the last six years, The New York Times reported.

However, $43 million appears to be more than the entire amount of money World Vision has allocated to Gaza over that time period.

In a statement to The Seattle Times, World Vision said the annual Gaza budget ranges from $4 million to $6 million annually. The money is part of some $12 million annually the organization spends in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, the nonprofit said.

World Vision is a major Christian aid organization that is active in nearly 100 countries. Its global annual operating budget topped $1 billion last year to finance programs providing education, health care and child protection.

El-Halabi, who is in his late 30s, has been employed by World Vision for more than 10 years in a number of roles. He has managed programs in Gaza that provide health, education and protection services for children, the organization said.

The Israeli allegations already are triggering donor repercussions. The Australian government announced late Thursday it was suspending its Gaza aid provided through World Vision until the investigation is complete.

“Any diversion of the generous support of the Australian and international community for military or terrorist purposes by Hamas is to be deplored,” the Australian government said.

Others cautioned against a rush to judgment.

“I think the world should be very skeptical about his (el-Halabi’s) arrest and suspect of Israel claims,” said John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for Western Washington who spent two years in the West Bank while serving in a U.S.-sponsored rule-of-law program.

McKay said the Israeli government has  sometimes denied legal rights to detained Palestinians, with charges not always supported by evidence. He  also said there has long been friction between the Israeli government and international aid agencies that seek to act  independently in Gaza.

Gaza is a small strip of land with a population of more than 1.75 million people. It’s a flashpoint in the ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinian people — and is a challenging place to provide aid.

Hamas, designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization, controls Gaza and is a bitter foe of Israel. Hamas militants have dug cross-border tunnels for the purpose of carrying out attacks in Israeli territory.

In 2014, Israel responded to rocket fire by invading Gaza, and homes, businesses and infrastructure were destroyed in the conflict.

Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that el-Halabi, under questioning, disclosed a wide-ranging effort to divert humanitarian aid from World Vision and the United Nations to military assistance.

The allegations include that:

• During the 2014 conflict, food packages were sent to Hamas fighters working in tunnels.

• Greenhouse projects were used to hide sites where Hamas tunnels were being built.

• Pipe, iron rods and building materials that were supposed to aid farmers instead helped build the Hamas tunnels, and donated money was used to help build a military base.

• A program to aid fishermen instead provided motor boats and diving suits for a Hamas military marine unit.

• Hamas operatives picked up supplies from World Vision warehouses at night.

El-Halabi’s attorney, Mohammed Mahmoud, gave a sharply different account of his client’s disclosures to Israeli officials.

Mahmoud told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that el-Halabi denies any ties to Hamas. Mahmoud notes that Israel took 55 days before charging his client, and believes that the lag time suggests Israel had problems building the case.

According to Mahmoud’s interview with Haaretz, el-Halabi told Israeli investigators that Hamas officials do indeed take aid supplies. But el-Halabi said that happens under threat of force.

There are no allegations that higher-level World Vision officials were aware of any misuse of the nonprofit’s funds in Gaza.

Tim Costello, the chief executive of World Vision Australia, which has been deeply involved in the Gaza project, said his organization was “very worried” about the impact of the accusations on its ability to raise money and do its humanitarian work.

“We want to get to the bottom of this, we want the truth,” Costello said.

Costello said he did not think it was appropriate for Israeli authorities to publicly announce the charges before el-Halabi and World Vision had a chance to review the evidence. He added that el-Halabi was prevented from consulting a lawyer for the first 25 days of his detention.

But the statement from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs already is raising wider questions about international aid operations in Gaza. The statement asserts the investigation has found a “troubling picture in which U.N. institutions in Gaza are in fact controlled” by Hamas.

A U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “aware of the reports and the seriousness of the allegations. The United Nation is following developments in the investigation and legal proceedings.”