International charity World Vision, has questioned Israeli accusations that tens of millions of dollars in aid, were channeled to fund the Islamist movement Hamas. It called the sum "hard to reconcile" with reality.
An Israeli court on Thursday, charged the NGO's Gaza head, Mohammed el-Halabi, (pictured above) with funding "terror," accusing him of diverting $7.2 million a year since 2010 to Hamas and its military wing. According to the Shin Bet internal security agency, this is roughly 60 percent of World Vision's total Gaza budget.
World Vision International president Kevin Jenkins said in a statement on Tuesday that the organization was conducting an investigation into the allegations.
"We condemn any diversion of funds from any humanitarian organization," he said. "If any of these allegations are proven to be true, we will take swift and decisive action," although added that the organization had "not seen any of the evidence," and suggested the numbers had been exaggerated.
"World Vision's cumulative operating budget in Gaza for the past ten years, was approximately $22.5 million, which makes the alleged amount of up to $50 million being diverted hard to reconcile," the statement read.
The NGO has suspended its operations in Gaza.
Shin Bet alleges that el-Halabi created an elaborate scheme to funnel funds, food, medical supplies and agricultural equipment to Hamas. The allegations further charge the organizational head with fraudulently listing the children of Hamas operatives as wounded, creating straw organizations, and inflating project costs to divert cash, the agency said.
The World Vision statement said el-Halabi became the Gaza chief in 2014 and would have only had the personal authority to sign off a budget of up to $15,000.
El-Halabi's lawyer, meanwhile, rejected the accusations as "baseless," saying his client was held without charge or access to legal support for several weeks after his June 15 arrest.
If proven correct, the allegations would boost Israel's arguments for maintaining its blockade of Gaza, which was imposed after Hamas seized power in the coastal strip in 2007.
Germany and Australia have suspended donations to World Vision in Gaza, amid the allegations.
The NGO has 150 staff in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and provides aid to around 560,000 people.
The US funded humanitarian projects run by World Vision through 2011, overlapping with el-Halabi's time as Gaza director. The US State Department has said it is closely following the investigation and if confirmed, Hamas's embezzlement of aid funds would be "reprehensible."
The UN coordinator for aid in the Palestinian territories, Robert Piper, said on Monday that the allegations against el-Halabi "raise serious concerns" for aid groups in Gaza and called for a fair and transparent trial.
jbh/kl (AFP, AP)