Israel sentences Gaza aid worker to six more years in prison

Mohammad al-Halabi, former Gaza chief for World Vision, was sentenced after already serving six years behind bars.

People hold pictures of Mohammad al-Halabi
People hold pictures of Mohammad al-Halabi, during a solidarity gathering in Gaza City [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]

An Israeli court has sentenced the former Gaza representative of a major United States-based Christian aid agency to 12 years in prison on allegations of sending money to the Palestinian armed movement Hamas.

Mohammad al-Halabi, former head of operations at World Vision in Gaza, was sentenced by the Beersabe’ (Beersheba) district court on Tuesday, which ruled he would serve another six years in addition to the six he has already spent in prison.

The court convicted al-Halabi in June on charges of sending millions of dollars to Hamas, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip, an accusation he and his lawyer have consistently denied.

Al-Halabi’s lawyer reiterated his claim of innocence following Tuesday’s sentencing. “He says that he’s innocent, he did nothing and there is no evidence,” Maher Hanna said, adding that they would appeal the verdict to the Israeli Supreme Court.

“On the contrary, he proved in the court above any reasonable doubt that he made sure that no money will be [given] directly to Hamas.”

According to Hanna, if al-Halabi, a father-of-five, had admitted to wrongdoings, he would have been released.

“But he insisted that truth also has value. And for his personal values, and for the international humanitarian work values, he insisted on the truth, and he cannot admit a thing that he did not do,” the lawyer said.

Israeli forces arrested al-Halabi in June 2016 at the Beit Hanoun (Erez) border crossing as he was returning to Gaza from work-related meetings, on allegations of transferring humanitarian funds of varying amounts up to $50m to support Hamas.

Al-Halabi spent six years behind bars and had more than 160 hearings before he was convicted.

Lawyers and human rights groups have pointed out that his trial was marred by due process violations, including prolonged detention without charge, the keeping of evidence Israel claims to hold against him as “secret,” and that he was exposed to torture.

World Vision said in a statement that the 12-year sentence was “deeply disappointing” and that it falls “in sharp contrast to the evidence and facts of the case”.

The organisation said it “condemns any and all acts of terrorism or support for such activities … we do not see evidence of these things in this case.”

“The arrest, six-year trial, unjust verdict and this sentence are emblematic of actions that hinder humanitarian work in Gaza and the West Bank,” said World Vision.

“It adds to the chilling impact on World Vision and other aid or development groups working to assist Palestinians.”

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the sentencing was “a profound miscarriage of justice”.

“Holding al-Halabi for six years based on secret evidence, which multiple investigations rejected, made a mockery of due process. Detaining him for six more is just cruel and inhumane,” Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir said on Twitter.

“He should long ago have been released. The al-Halabi case exposes how Israel uses its legal system to provide a veneer of legality to mask its ugly apartheid over millions of Palestinians,” he added.

In 2017, the Australian government, which is a significant donor to World Vision, concluded in a probe that no money was used for transferring funds to Hamas.

Earlier this month, Israeli forces shut down and criminalised seven Palestinian human rights and civil society organisations in the occupied West Bank.

In Gaza, al-Halabi’s mother described the anguish of following what she called an unjust trial.

“I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown, and I was screaming,” Amal al-Halabi said.

“This is injustice. Where is the international community and where are Mohammed’s human rights?”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies