Israeli court finds Gaza aid worker guilty on terror charges

BEERSHEBA (AP): An Israeli court on Wednesday found a Gaza aid worker guilty of several terrorism charges.

Mohammed el-Halabi, who was the Gaza director for the international Christian charity World Vision from 2014 until his arrest in 2016, was accused of diverting tens of millions of dollars to the Islamic militant group Hamas that rules the territory.

Both he and World Vision have denied any wrongdoing, and an independent audit in 2017 also found no evidence of support for Hamas.

He has been held in Israeli detention since 2016. He has not yet been sentenced.

The district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba read the verdict Wednesday, saying el-Halabi was guilty of several charges, including membership in a terrorism organization, providing information to a terror group, taking part in forbidden military exercises and carrying a weapon.

World Vision, a Christian charity that operates in nearly 100 countries and annually distributes some $2.5 billion in aid, has fully supported el-Halabi and says it has seen no evidence of wrongdoing.

An independent forensic audit and investigation carried out nearly five years ago also turned up no evidence against him, and instead found that he had actively worked to prevent funds from falling into the hands of Hamas. The Australian government, a major donor to World Vision, also said it found no evidence of wrongdoing.

El-Halabi’s lawyer, Maher Hanna, has said his client was offered multiple plea bargains in which he could have walked free — a common tactic in Israeli trials involving Palestinians — but refused on principle to admit to things he said he didn’t do.

Israeli authorities stuck to the allegations, repeatedly saying they had proof that Hamas had infiltrated the aid group and was diverting funds from needy Gazans. Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpeted the charges in an online video shortly after el-Halabi’s arrest.

Critics say Israel often relies on questionable informants. They allege that Israel smears groups that provide aid or other support to Palestinians in order to shore up its nearly 55-year military occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.