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‘I want to tell Netanyahu he is a liar’: father of imprisoned Gaza aid worker

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 20 September 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

BEN LYNFIELD: Khalil el-Halabi says his son Mohammed's confession was extracted under duress and should not have been admissible, and hopes the Israeli Supreme Court will deliver justice.

Upon initial consideration, Khalil el-Halabi, a 69-year-old resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, would seem to have little in common with Yair Lapid, the Israeli Prime Minister running for re-election who oversaw a fierce military operation against Islamic Jihad in Gaza last month.

But it turns out that both el-Halabi, the retired director of education for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, and Lapid, son of a secular Israeli journalist and politician, share something significant.

Both revile Likud party opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lapid says his bitter rival in the November election, together with his allies, could badly damage the country while el-Halabi says the Likud leader has destroyed the life of his son Mohammed.

"I want to talk directly to Netanyahu and tell him he is a liar," el-Halabi told The Jewish Independent during a phone interview.

Mohammed el-Halabi, who had served as Gaza head of the international charity organization World Vision, was sentenced to 12 years in prison last month after being convicted of funnelling tens of millions of dollars in charity to Hamas. He denied wrongdoing and according to Haaretz, his lawyer said a confession was extracted under duress and should not have been admissable.

Mohammed knows he is innocent and does not want to admit to something he did not do - KHALIL EL-HALABI

"Mohammed knows he is innocent and does not want to admit to something he did not do," el-Halabi said. Another factor in his decision was that he did not want to let Israel use a plea bargain to smear the entire system of humanitarian aid provision in Gaza, his lawyer, Maher Hanna, told The Jewish Independent.

The proceedings in the Beersheba district court, which took six years and relied heavily on evidence that was not made public, amounted to one of the longest and most controversial trials in Israeli history. Three UN special rapporteurs and rights groups criticised it as lacking due process, being held largely behind closed doors and ignoring investigations, including by Australia's Foreign and Trade Office, a substantial donor, which found there had been no wrongdoing.

Israel depicted Mohammed el-Halabi as a threat to its security, who had methodically and cynically diverted money meant for destitute farmers and other Gaza residents to the military wing of Hamas.

The Jewish Independent

The fact that the sum Israel accused el-Halabi of diverting, more than $US50 million, greatly exceeded what World Vision reported as el-Halabi's total budget allocation did not seem to bother Israeli officials, who said the diverted money still amounted to a huge sum.

Netanyahu, apparently eyeing a chance to score public relations points, was quick to release a video painting el-Halabi, whom he did not name, as serving the militant group's leaders and their deadly efforts against Israel.

"Israel cares more about Palestinians than their own leaders do. Innocent and impoverished Palestinians were denied vital aid supplied from nations around the world," he said. "Hamas used this stolen money to build a war machine to murder Jews."

Khalil el-Halabi is convinced this set the tone for Israel's alleged mistreatment of his son and what he, the UN and human rights groups say was denial of a fair trial.

The moment you catch someone transferring money to terror, you use the courts and put him on trial - SHAUL SHAY

Netanyahu's office did not respond to a request by The Jewish Independent for comment. But Shaul Shay, former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, told The Jewish Independent that Israel has handled the case properly. "The state of Israel has to deal with so-called humanitarian organisations transferring terror money. The moment you catch someone transferring money to terror, you use the courts and put him on trial, and courts sentence in the way they sentence in the West like the US, England and European countries.

“This is how western countries deal with money for terrorism and there is no terrorism without money for terrorism. That is why dealing with the problem is so important. I certainly believe that a court in Israel knows how to reach a just verdict and this should be respected within Israel and by other countries.

“There are many humanitarian organisations in Gaza and as long as their activity is strictly humanitarian, Israel not only doesn't bar it but allows it."

World Vision, which has pledged to back up Mohammed el-Halabi as he appeals to the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction and sentence, said in a statement after the sentencing that it had not seen anything to question its 2017 forensic investigation finding that there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Pointedly, it added that Israel's handling of the case is having a "chilling effect" on the provision of badly needed aid to Gaza's destitute population.

El-Halabi's lawyer told The Jewish Independent that "if the public saw the evidence, it would know how ridiculous this was". However, he is barred by security strictures from disclosing the evidence. "I am sure the Supreme Court will be more professional and will not allow this circus to continue." No date has been set yet for the appeal.

Both Hanna and Khalil el-Halabi stress that Mohammed repeatedly turned down plea bargain offers from the prosecution that would have allowed him to walk free based on time served. He did this, despite knowing the chances of Palestinians being acquitted in security cases are minimal.

Mohammed now faces six years in jail, with the six years he has already served deducted. His father, as he has from day one, will continue to serve as his biggest advocate, cajoling journalists and firing off letters all over the globe and writing columns in the Guardian, Washington Post and Haaretz.

His latest attempt on behalf of his son was to write a letter to Israel's ally, UAE leader Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, asking him to intervene. He hopes Australian leaders, under the new Labor government, will help. In better times, Mohammed el-Halabi addressed the Australian parliament in 2013 and stressed that humanitarian aid can reduce violence, his father said.

But Khalil el-Halabi knows that his most important target audience is in Israel. "I wrote many statements to the Israeli people to inform them of Mohammed's innocence. I need all the Israeli people who believe in peace and justice to stand with my son. Some Israeli people love peace and justice but others don't want to know the reality of my son's case."

He says he will not bear grudges about the last six years if the Supreme Court acquits his son. "I will inform all of the international community about this everywhere. I will write to all the human rights organisations, to the UN secretary-general and to all the people in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza that Israel made a fair trial for my son, Mohammed."


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Photo: Khalil el-Halabi, father of Mohammed, pictured in 2016 (AP/Adel Hana)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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