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'Longest trial in history': Palestinian NGO worker's case resumes for 129th time

Over the past four years, Muhammed al-Halabi's family says Israeli authorities interrogated and tortured the father of five accused of funnelling money to Hamas
Halabi (C), was returning from a meeting in Jerusalem in June 2016 when he was arrested at the Erez border checkpoint (AFP)
By Maha Hussaini in Gaza City

The former director of a charity in the Gaza Strip, accused of funnelling donations to Hamas and its military wing, attended his 129th hearing in Be’er Sheva District Court on Wednesday.

Muhammed al-Halabi, 41, was working for the US-based organisation World Vision in Gaza when he was detained by Israeli intelligence and security in June 2016 at the Erez border checkpoint on his way home after a routine meeting in Jerusalem.

'All the eyewitnesses and even the officials at World Vision gave proof that he was innocent. But this is not what the prosecution is looking for'

- Hamed, Muhammed al-Halibi's brother

According to Halabi’s father, Khalil, Muhammed was picked up in a joint operation carried out by the Shin Bet security service, the Israeli army and Israeli police.

Over the past four years, he has experienced interrogations and court hearings and according to the Palestinian Authority’s agency for detainees, has been subjected to the “longest trial in the history" of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons.

On Wednesday, his long-running case resumed again but ended quickly, Halabi's family told Middle East Eye.

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“Today’s hearing was cancelled shortly after it started because the witnesses were not present,” his brother, Hamed, said. “The prosecution then threatened that any witnesses who come from Gaza to give their testimony will be detained.”

“They do not want anyone to prove them wrong. All the eyewitnesses and even the officials at World Vision gave proof that he was innocent. But this is not what the prosecution is looking for,” he said.

His father said that in one of the court hearings, the judge threatened Halabi, saying that if he would not confess that he collaborated with Hamas, she would sentence him to “long-term imprisonment”.

“She threatened him and tried to force him to confirm the accusations in front of everyone,” he said.

Since his detention, Halabi, a father of five from the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, has refused to sign confessions that he used his position at World Vision to fund Hamas, according to his family.

World Vision is the largest evangelical Christian charity in the world and has provided support to Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with local operations for more than 40 years.

Following Halabi’s detention, the US-based charity denied the accusations, arguing that it had “no reason to believe” Israel’s claims that he had diverted funds.

Ongoing torture, says family

During his detention, Halabi’s family said that he has undergone several interrogations and been subjected to “horrific torture” in which Israeli intelligence officers slapped him, hung him from the ceiling for prolonged periods of time, kicked him in his genitals, stripped him naked, and denied him sleep.

“We can never call or contact him. None of us is allowed to see him except his mother who gets to meet him once in several months,” his father told MEE.

Palestinian children hold posters of al-Halabi during a protest to support him in Rafah in August 2016 (AFP)
Palestinian children hold posters of al-Halabi during a protest to support him in Rafah in August 2016 (AFP)

“What do you expect his condition would be? He has been criminalised and subjected to humiliation and ill-treatment for years.”

According to his father, the interrogation and torture of his son have never stopped since his detention in 2016.

“The last time his mother saw him was last August. She said he had lost much of his weight and was in pain due to the torture,” his father said.

“After several demands to be transferred to the hospital for having severe pain in the head and ears, Muhammed was moved in a vehicle for three days, only to meet the doctor who tore up his medical report and told him he was lying.”

‘Delegitimising’ humanitarian work

The Israeli authorities have strictly tightened restrictions on human rights and aid organisations operating in the occupied Palestinian territories during the past five years, including by applying restrictive measures on financial transactions and deporting workers of international organisations.

In a report published in January, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that attempts to “delegitimise” humanitarian and human rights organisations have been increasing significantly with the apparent support of the Israeli government during the past few years.

OCHA added that “targeted defamation and smear campaigns allege violations of counter-terrorism legislation and international law, or political action against Israel”.

The Israeli authorities have also been trying to deport US citizen Omar Shakir, Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The Israeli Ministry of Interior revoked Shakir’s work permit in May 2018, accusing him of supporting the Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement before he joined HRW.

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According to Shakir, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which said he shared BDS content on social media, also cited his work at HRW to make their case.

The attempt to deport Shakir is one of several cases in which Israeli authorities have deported human rights workers.

In August 2016, Pam Bailey, director of We Are Not Numbers and former international secretary of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, was detained and interrogated by the Israeli Border Police at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on her way to the Gaza Strip before being deported back to the United States.

The American human rights activist was then given a 10-year ban, joining a growing number of international NGO workers who are denied permits to visit Israel and the Palestinian territory.

A former employee at World Vision, who preferred to remain anonymous, told MEE that the accusations against Halabi were part of attempts to halt the organisation’s work in the Palestinian territory, including the Gaza Strip.

“Following the detention of Halabi, an external audit was conducted by one of the Big Four auditors,” she said, referring to the nickname for the world’s largest accounting firms. “The firm’s report concluded that there was no diversion of funds.”

“There was a political attack on the organisation given that one of its main offices is in the United States,” she continued. “The Israeli lobby in the US must have played a major role in impeding the work of the organisation.”

Halabi’s family concurs. “They know very well that he is innocent, but they cannot release him after four years of interrogation and torture and prove themselves wrong,” his father concluded.

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