Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Aid workers in Gaza fear an Israeli campaign against international charities

It comes after Israel charged two Palestinian employees of international aid organisations with diverting funds to Hamas and warned that "additional figures" had "exploited their work in organisations including humanitarian aid organisations and UN institutions on behalf" of the militant group.
Khalil Al Halabi, 63, is pictured next to a photo of his son, World Vision's Gaza director, Mohammed Al Halabi, at his family home in Gaza City on August 8, 2016. Adel Hana/AP Photo
Khalil Al Halabi, 63, is pictured next to a photo of his son, World Vision's Gaza director, Mohammed Al Halabi, at his family home in Gaza City on August 8, 2016. Adel Hana/AP Photo

JERUSALEM // Concern is mounting in the Gaza Strip over Israeli charges against Palestinian employees of international aid organisations who are accused of diverting funds to Hamas.

The worry is that the indictments – which were filed last week – could be the start of a campaign against international charities that could discourage and disrupt the flow of aid to the blockaded enclave where the overwhelming majority of Gazans depend on it.

“These international organisations are working to alleviate suffering in Gaza. We are concerned that these allegations and claims and this campaign will lead to withdrawal of some organisations and more restrictions of work and projects on the ground” for those that remain, said Amjad Shawa, Gaza director of the Palestinian NGO Network, which co-ordinates between local and international NGOs on the provision of agriculture, health and development aid.

Mr Shawa expressed fears the controversy would affect reconstruction efforts that are urgently needed to help the tens of thousands of Gazans still waiting to rebuild homes destroyed in the 2014 war.

Concerns began on Thursday last week when Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, released a statement alleging that World Vision’s Gaza director, Mohammed Al Halabi, was “active in the military wing of Hamas and [had] exploited the organisation’s budget and resources for Hamas”. The global Christian charity is one of the biggest donors to Gaza.

The Shin Bet alleged that 60 per cent of World Vision’s Gaza budget was diverted by Mr Al Halabi, amounting to approximately US$7.2 million (Dh26.5m) a year over seven years.

That same day Mr Al Halabi was formally charged.

World Vision suspended its Gaza operations following the allegations and said it was launching a full review. But it questioned the Shin Bet’s claim that Mr Al Halabi had diverted some fifty million dollars, saying its entire Gaza budget for the past 10 years was just $22.5m.

Mr Al Halabi’s lawyer, Salah Mhesan, told The National that his client denies being a Hamas member along with the rest of the Shin Bet’s allegations.

In the second indictment, which was filed on Tuesday, a Gaza engineer for the United Nations Development Programme, Waheed Al Bursh, was charged with utilising UNDP resources for Hamas, including for its naval forces. The UNDP said it was “greatly concerned” about the allegations, while Mr Al Bursh’s relatives said he was not linked to Hamas.

Israel denies it is waging or planning a campaign against international aid organisations, saying they play a vital role in assisting the Gaza population.

“Humanitarian aid should continue because it is extremely important,” said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon. But, he added: “We call on all the international organisations to be more vigilant regarding the way they manage their budgets and operations.”

In its statement on Mr Al Halabi, the Shin Bet indicated there were other similar cases that had not yet been publicised.

“The investigation revealed much information concerning additional figures in the Gaza Strip who exploited their work in organisations including humanitarian aid organisations and UN institutions on behalf of Hamas,” the agency said.

And the foreign ministry published a cartoon on social media on Wednesday that some international aid workers interpreted as a broadening of the indictments into an overall smear of international NGOs. The cartoon showed a Gazan woman and her two children, with a bubble placed over the woman’s head indicating that she was thinking of books, food and a house. Next to her were two men wearing Hamas sashes, carrying bags labelled “aid”. A bubble over their heads contained rockets, a grenade and a rifle.

“International aid organisations’ funds in Gaza don’t always get to their recipients as recent World Vision, UNDP cases show,” the ministry wrote alongside the cartoon.

“The spotlight now seems to be on aid organisations as a whole,” said a foreign staffer of a Western aid organisation who asked for anonymity. “We continue to watch what happens. Ultimately our concern is that as a sector we want to continue to assist almost the entire 1.8 million population of Gaza. That’s our real concern, to make sure these people continue to get the aid they need.’’

Ahmed Yousef, a former aide to Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniya, termed the Israeli allegations “nonsense”.

But Naji Shurrab, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza, said it is possible that Hamas diverts aid money to itself although added that he did not know if there was any basis to suspect Mr Al Halabi of being part of such an effort.

“Hamas governs everything moving in Gaza, maybe it exerts direct or indirect influence on these organisations,” he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: August 11, 2016 04:00 AM

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