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Israel Accuses World Vision's Gaza Chief Of Aiding Hamas


Israel has arrested the local Gaza director of World Vision, one of the world's largest aid organizations. Israel is accusing him of funneling millions of dollars in donor's money to the militant group Hamas. Now, the case could have big implications for both World Vision and other groups that provide humanitarian assistance in the region. We're joined now by NPR's Nick Schifrin. He's in Jerusalem. And, Nick, first tell us about the man at the center of this and what the Israelis say he did.

NICK SCHIFRIN, BYLINE: Yeah, his name is Mohammad El Halabi. He was the Gaza manager of operations for World Vision. And Israel's internal security services say he infiltrated World Vision more than a decade ago on behalf of Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and is labeled a terror organization by the U.S., Israel. And what the Israelis say he did was he used fake humanitarian projects to divert about $7 million a year. A few hours ago, I talked on the phone to his father, Khalil Halabi. He denied his son was a Hamas member.

KHALIL HALABI: He denied everything. Mohammad is not related to Hamas. They want to stop the humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

SCHIFRIN: He says the charges are an excuse to stop humanitarian assistance for Gaza, and he says they were actually based on misinformation provided by a disgruntled World Vision employee. Now, for its part, Israel says it does want assistance to reach needy Gazans, just without being siphoned off by Hamas.

CORNISH: And how has World Vision responded?

SCHIFRIN: Yeah, they promised to investigate, but they say they've been auditing this Gaza program. And from their statement they say look, quote, "based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true." And that's what's interesting here. The allegations do not suggest World Vision was in on it. They suggest that El Halabi was able to work around World Vision's audits.

For example, fake charities that were actually Hamas fronts allegedly received World Vision donations, and entire lists of aid beneficiaries were allegedly fictitious. So instead of giving money to, say, needy farmers, the money was handed out to Hamas.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what's been the reaction among other aid organizations in the region?

SCHIFRIN: They're extremely worried. One official I spoke with called this a quote, "game changer." You have to remember, Hamas is an elected government in Gaza, and its members are in every single aspect of society. And so aid organizations are extremely worried today about their employees being linked to Hamas. The U.N. spends millions of dollars to try and prove that it's clean and its aid doesn't get diverted. Smaller organizations may not be able to afford that, and that could seriously strain their ability to operate in Gaza and deliver aid.

CORNISH: In the meantime, is Israel putting more pressure on these groups?

SCHIFRIN: Yeah, very much so. I mean, Israel's been worried about this for a long time, but they've never had this kind of detailed evidence. So they will be putting more pressure than usual on aid organizations. And one of those people who will apply the pressure is Gerald Steinberg. He's the president of the pro-Israeli advocacy group NGO Monitor. They'll be scrutinizing aid to the Palestinians and will be one of the main groups that put that pressure on the organizations who especially work in Gaza.

GERALD STEINBERG: They're going to have to vet key people. They're going to have to have a better means of tracking. Humanitarian aid agencies don't like the idea that they're going to have to have cameras all over the place, and they're going to have to monitor how their money is being used, how their aid is being used.

SCHIFRIN: But Steinberg says that's exactly what they're going to have to do and exactly what he'll push them to do. And the impact of that pressure is already being felt. Just hours after the announcement, Australia suspended all its funding to World Vision in the Palestinian territories.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nick Schifrin in Jerusalem. Thank you, Nick.

SCHIFRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Schifrin