Gazans, NGO Distance Themselves From World Vision Aid Worker Mohammed El Halabi

Palestinian children hold posters of Mohammed Halabi (L), the Gaza director of World Vision, a major US-based Christian NGO, during a protest to support him at Rafah town in the southern Gaza Strip on August 29, 2016. On August 4 an Israeli court charged Halabi, the Gaza director of the …

(AFP) – Gaza businessman Saqer Alatar, whose company is accused of helping to divert millions of dollars in funds to Hamas, insists he barely knows the NGO worker at the centre of the controversy.

“I only know what he looks like. Maybe I wished him good morning once,” Mr Alatar said at his Gaza offices. “I don’t even have his number on my cell phone.”

But various people involved with aid programs in Gaza, including Mr Alatar, as well as the US-based charity and those who know Halabi, have said the allegations against him — at least those made public — do not add up.

Calls have mounted for Israel to try Halabi in public, with proceedings so far held in secret due to what Israel calls sensitive security information.

The dramatic claim that Halabi siphoned off $US7.2 million per year to Hamas is not in the official charge sheet and it is unclear if Israel has backed away from it.

Israeli authorities said Halabi’s case and another involving a United Nations (UN) staffer in Gaza show Hamas systematically exploits aid programs.

In 2014, the younger Halabi featured in a UN campaign on “humanitarian heroes”. He travelled the world for World Vision and speaks near-perfect English. In one picture on Facebook, he appears grinning in Parliament in Canberra.

A World Vision source said an external investigator was brought in after one of its accountants fired in 2015 made allegations against Mr Halabi, including Hamas links.

The probe found no evidence of wrongdoing, the source said.

Halabi hostile to Hamas, family says

World Vision’s global chief Kevin Jenkins told AFP the scale of the allegations was “very difficult to reconcile” with reality.

Any payment over $US80 needed two signatures, with anything over $US15,000 signed off by the national office in Jerusalem, World Vision said.

The German and Australian governments, as donors, have additional mechanisms including external audits and they have found no major concerns.

One of the main allegations in the charge sheet is that Halabi rigged World Vision’s purchasing system so “bids for the execution of nearly all projects would be won by one of two companies”, including Alatar’s agricultural business.

The companies overcharged World Vision and gave the money back to Halabi for Hamas, it says.

World Vision told AFP its contracts with Mr Alatar were worth $US330,000 over 10 years, and with the other firm, Arcoma, $US400,000 a five-year period.

But friends of the employee told AFP that his sister, sister-in-law and three other family members were killed in a 2009 assault by Hamas on a Salafist mosque and that he is hostile to the group.