Australian probe finds no misconduct by World Vision in Gaza

Published March 23rd, 2017 - 11:00 GMT
Palestinian Mohammed Halabi (C), the Gaza director of World Vision, a major US-based Christian NGO, looks on during his indictment at a district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva on August 4, 2016. (AFP/Dudu Grunshpan)
Palestinian Mohammed Halabi (C), the Gaza director of World Vision, a major US-based Christian NGO, looks on during his indictment at a district court in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva on August 4, 2016. (AFP/Dudu Grunshpan)

An Australian government probe has found no evidence that taxpayer money was misused by NGO World Vision in the Gaza Strip, despite ongoing allegations by the Israeli government that millions of dollars were diverted from the organization to the Hamas movement, the de facto ruling party of the besieged coastal enclave.

Muhammad al-Halabi, the head of the group’s office in Gaza, was detained by Israeli forces in Juneand was charged by Israel with financing Hamas with funds from the organization on Aug. 4.

Immediately following the accusations against al-Halabi -- of which World Vision investigated in August and found no evidence -- Australia, which according to AFP had given millions of dollars to the Christian NGO over the years, immediately suspended its funding for World Vision’s Gaza programs and opened an investigation headed by the government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

AFP cited a statement on Tuesday from the DFAT, saying that “the review uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds,” adding that the Australian government’s funding to World Vision programs in Gaza would remain frozen pending the result of al-Halabi’s trial."

Halabi’s court case is ongoing, but his lawyers have accused the prosecution of refusing to hand over much of the evidence.

World Vision itself is also conducting an independent review of its operations to determine whether any graft occurred.

The DFAT said funding to World Vision’s programs would remain frozen pending the result of the probe and Halabi’s trial, which Israel postponed to October 2017.

AFP quoted Tim Costello, chief advocate for World Vision Australia, as saying he was “very pleased and very relieved” with the findings of the DFAT investigation.

The DFAT report came as new allegations from the Israeli army surfaced, accusing Muhammad Murtaja, the director of the Gaza office of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), of diverting funds intended for TIKA to the military wing of Hamas.

Murtaja was detained by Israeli forces at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Feb. 13 on suspicions that he was working for Hamas, which Israel considers a "terrorist organization." According to the Israeli army, Murtaja “falsified lists of needy Gazans, transferred aid packages, and diverted millions of shekels to the terror group.”

In Tuesday’s report on the case against Murtaja, the Israeli army cited the case against al-Halabi and reiterated Israeli claims that he funneled “tens of millions of dollars” to Hamas’ military wing, saying Murtaja’s case was “far from the first time that Hamas has recruited and exploited the positions of humanitarian workers in order to divert aid intended for Gaza’s civilians to terror.”

In response to a request for comment on DFAT’s findings, the Israeli army told Ma’an they would look into reports.
 
In the midst of the World Vision and TIKA cases, other NGOs have also been in Israel’s crosshairs, with a Palestinian employee of Save the Children also reportedly accused of being a Hamas member, and a Palestinian engineer employed by the UNDP indicted on charges of “using his position to assist the Hamas terrorist organization” nearly a week after al-Halabi was detained.
 
The recent spate of detentions of aid workers over their alleged involvement with Hamas comes amid an already dire situation in the besieged Gaza Strip.
 
The Gaza Strip has suffered under an Israeli military blockade since 2007, when Hamas was elected to rule the territory. Residents of Gaza suffer from high unemployment and poverty rates, as well as the consequences of three devastating wars with Israel since 2008, most recently in the summer of 2014.
 
The 51-day Israeli offensive, termed “Operation Protective Edge” by Israeli authorities, resulted in the killings of at least 1,462 Palestinian civilians, a third of whom were children, according to the UN.
 
The UN has said that the besieged Palestinian territory could become "uninhabitable" by 2020, as its nearly two million residents remain in dire poverty due to the nearly decade-long Israeli blockade that has crippled the economy, while continuing to experience the widespread destruction wrought by the Israeli offenses, and the slow-paced reconstruction efforts aimed at rebuilding homes for some 75,000 of Palestinians who remain displaced following the last Israeli assault.
 
Recovery efforts have also been hindered by a severe shortage of foreign funding.
 
Early last year, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), which has played a leading role in rebuilding destroyed homes in the beleaguered coastal enclave, said that of the $720 million required for its emergency shelter program, donor countries had pledged only $247 million.

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