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Will western governments push back against Israel's assault on civil society?

The case of Mohammed Halabi, a humanitarian aid worker arrested three years ago in Gaza, has received stunningly little coverage
Palestinian children hold posters of Mohammed Halabi, the Gaza director of World Vision, during a 2016 protest in Rafah to support him (AFP)

In recent years, a crackdown by Israeli authorities on human rights NGOs – particularly those focused on Palestinian rights – has caused considerable concern internationally, attracting attention in both the media and at the governmental level.

Yet, perhaps the most egregious case of Israel’s targeting of the humanitarian sector has been taking place over the last three years with almost zero coverage.

In June 2016, Israeli authorities arrested Mohammed Halabi at the Gaza Strip’s Erez crossing. Halabi, a father of five, was working as the Gaza director for the international humanitarian NGO World Vision, and was returning from a meeting in Jerusalem at the time of his arrest.

Alarm bells ringing

Seven weeks later, Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, announced with much fanfare spectacular charges against Halabi – namely, that he had used his role to redirect tens of millions in World Vision funds to Hamas, as part of a decade-long conspiracy to infiltrate the charity.

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Incredibly, however, three years on, there has been no conviction. The trial has seen some 120 court sessions, in what has been described by the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs as “one of the longest trials” ever. Halabi maintains his innocence.

Halabi reportedly 'never receives accurate translations of the court proceedings', and Israel has also refused to allow his lawyer 'to visit Gaza and meet witnesses who could bolster his case'

Alarm bells should have been ringing from the start – in particular, due to the appalling conditions Halabi has been subjected to, and the ongoing denial of his right to due process. After his detention, the World Vision staffer was held for three weeks without access to a lawyer (the maximum such period in non-“security” cases is 48 hours). 

Halabi, his family, and lawyers have provided multiple and credible accounts of torture at the hands of Shin Bet interrogators – indeed, even “several witnesses the prosecution has presented to court have also accused Israeli intelligence officers of torturing them during interrogation”.

Local and global human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, have long recorded the routine use of torture by Israeli authorities. Meanwhile, as documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Halabi’s lawyer was only given access “to all previously undisclosed evidence one year and a half after the start of the trial” and “permitted to start examining defence witnesses 24 months into the trial”.

In addition, Halabi reportedly “never receives accurate translations of the court proceedings”, and Israel has also refused to allow his lawyer “to visit Gaza and meet witnesses who could bolster his case” or to grant permits for witnesses to come and testify in court.

Judicial farce

Extraordinarily, in March 2017, the judge himself urged Halabi to accept a plea deal, on the grounds that Palestinian suspects in “security” cases are almost always convicted: “You’ve read the numbers and the statistics,” the judge told him. “You know how these issues are handled.”

But it’s not just the judicial farce that undermines the case against Halabi; it is also the matter of the evidence, or lack thereof. After World Vision pointed out that the amount of money allegedly diverted to Hamas exceeded the NGO’s total budget, an Israeli government spokesperson said the exact figures were irrelevant.

Halabi appears in an Israeli court in Beersheva in August 2016 (AFP)
Halabi appears in an Israeli court in Beersheva in August 2016 (AFP)

In August 2016, “Western diplomats” told Haaretz that they had not received any intelligence or evidence about Halabi. The following year, an Australian government investigation “found no evidence taxpayer money was misused by the World Vision NGO in the Gaza Strip”. 

World Vision, which initiated two separate inquiries – carried out by Deloitte for World Vision International, and Ernst and Young for World Vision Australia – reiterated as recently as May that it had still not seen “any evidence” to support the Israeli authorities’ allegations.

Comments by multiple sources – including World Vision, Israeli media, and Halabi’s family – suggest a key role might have been played by an ex-World Vision employee who “bore a grudge” after being fired by Halabi. Having left Gaza, the individual is allegedly “now acting as a witness in the Israeli case”.

Confession under torture

In the immediate aftermath of the indictments being announced, a senior Israeli official declared that “the evidence is the confession of the detainee”. This “confession” was obtained from Halabi when he had no legal representation and was subject to torture – and one that he subsequently retracted

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The 2016 indictments were headline news internationally, and Israeli officials went to great efforts to publicise the allegations among journalists and diplomats.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed the indictments proved substantial links between aid groups and “terrorist” organisations, adding for good measure: “I imagine that in the World Vision organisation, which is very anti-Israeli, they turned a blind eye.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry focused on “spread[ing] the news …among liberal and religious groups who support World Vision”, and the ministry’s then-director, Dore Gold, wrote to foreign ministries around the world, baldly asserting that Halabi “is actually a major figure in the Hamas terrorist organisation”.

Even as the court case drags on, Israel and its supporters have repeated the accusations against Halabi as fact, as part of a broader agenda. A recent publication by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, for example, cites the unproven allegations as proof of “international relief organisations” having ties with Hamas. NGO Monitor, a serial harasser of civil society groups, states on its website that Halabi was “revealed … to be a Hamas terrorist”.

Disturbing silence

Increasing attention is being paid to the deteriorating atmosphere for human rights groups at the hands of Israeli authorities; even a UK minister recently acknowledged reports of “pressure exerted against NGOs, particularly those critical of Israel’s conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories”.

But while examples such as the ongoing efforts to deport Human Rights Watch official Omar Shakir – and to a lesser extent, legislative and financial steps targeting NGOs – have elicited international criticism, there is a disturbing silence over the Halabi case. 

For NGOs in Gaza, Halabi's case prompts the question – could we be next?

The nightmare experienced by Halabi and his family exposes the routine violence and corruption of Israel’s Shin Bet and judicial system, and the relationship between the two. It has also highlighted the deference offered to that system by Israel’s Western allies, and the inability to see – or call out – a politicised stitch-up dressed up as “counter-terrorism”.

In 2016, Israeli rights groups slammed authorities for using Halabi’s indictment to attack “humanitarian operations in the Gaza Strip as a whole”. For NGOs in Gaza, Halabi’s case prompts the question – could we be next? As Israel seeks to shrink the humanitarian space, intimidation works.

Whatever the result of an utterly discredited legal process, Halabi’s case is now a litmus test for Western governments, and their willingness to push back against Israel’s assault on civil society.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Ben White is a writer, journalist, and analyst specialising in Palestine/Israel. His articles have appeared widely in international media outlets, including Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Independent, and others. He is the author of four books, the latest of which, 'Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel' (Pluto Press), was published in 2018.
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