一种t about 9am on 12 七月 2016, dozens of Israeli security officers stormed through the gates of the Augusta Victoria hospital complex in East Jerusalem. They surged past the hospital, which mostly serves the local Palestinian population, and through the main car park to a three-storey building where the offices of the international charity World Vision were located.
The officers, some armed with rifles, ordered the charity’s few dozen staff into a meeting room and seized their phones to prevent them contacting the outside world. According to witnesses, they were kept there for the next four hours. Occasionally, Israeli police and intelligence agents called an employee out of the room for questioning, while others roamed the offices, searching through files.
As the most senior staff member on site, Conny Lenneberg, an Australian who was then head of World Vision’s Middle East operations, was the only one allowed to leave the room. According to Lenneberg, officers aggressively demanded copies of World Vision’s financial records for the past few years. In one hallway, Lenneberg came upon an Israeli intelligence agent questioning World Vision’s finance director, an Ethiopian man, about the charity’s systems for preventing fraud. “They kept saying: ‘You just said that but now you are saying something different.’ They got him totally confused,” Lenneberg recalled. “They didn’t really seem to have a clue what they were looking for. Our sense was they didn’t really understand our systems.” After four hours, as quickly as they had arrived, the officers left.
They never said his name, but the staff knew the raid was connected to the disappearance of Mohammed El Halabi. A month earlier, Halabi, the 38-year-old head of World Vision’s Gaza office, had been arrested as he walked through the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel. Nothing had been heard of him since. A few weeks after Halabi’s arrest, Lenneberg had flown to Jerusalem to seek more information from Israeli authorities.
在 4 八月, three weeks after the raid, Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service made an extraordinary announcement. It said that Halabi had confessed to diverting $7.2m a year, for the past seven years, to the Islamist militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. More than $1m a year had allegedly been delivered in cash to combat units. In total, Halabi was accused of stealing up to $50m meant for desperate Palestinians and giving it to Hamas to buy rockets and build tunnels. If true, it would be perhaps the largest theft of aid money in history.
For the Israeli government it was a PR coup. It had long accused Hamas of diverting international aid intended for Gaza to fund its wars against the Jewish state. Now it claimed it had proof. “We were all totally shocked by the scale of the allegations – the Israelis hadn’t given us any warning, just a big announcement,” says Sharon Marshall, World Vision’s head of communications based in Canada.
World Vision, which was founded in the US in 1950, is one of the world’s biggest charities, with an annual budget of more than $2bn. Heavily funded by western governments and US Christian groups, it operates in more than 80 countries and works to support more than 40 million of the world’s poorest children. The arrest of one of its directors made headlines around the world. Foreign governments, including Australia and Germany, stopped all funding to World Vision’s projects in Gaza, while the Israelis suspended the organisation’s licence to work in Gaza at all.
在 11 八月 2016, then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a populist with a knack for seizing the political moment, made a special address on his official YouTube channel. “一世, the prime minister of Israel, care more about Palestinians than their own leaders,” he said in English, speaking straight into the camera in his clipped American accent. “A few days ago the world learned that Hamas, the terrorist organisation that rules Gaza, stole millions of dollars from humanitarian organisations like World Vision and the United Nations.” He concluded: “Hamas stole critical support for Palestinian children so they could kill our children.”
Yet gaps in the Israeli case rapidly appeared. Israel alleges Halabi was an underground Hamas operative who infiltrated the charity and silenced his colleagues through fear, but those who know Halabi reject these accusations. They describe Halabi as a dedicated family man who was supportive to colleagues, opposed Hamas politically and was, above all, committed to delivering aid to his people. Israel’s case has been further undermined by an independent forensic audit of World Vision’s operations, conducted by one of the world’s largest accountancy firms, which found no funds missing and no evidence of criminal activity.
Halabi has been in prison for five years and two months while the case drags through the Israeli courts. If found guilty, he faces decades in prison. The prosecution rested heavily on secret evidence, some of which even the defence team say they were not allowed to view, prompting a UN special rapporteur to condemn proceedings as “not worthy of a democratic state”.
Like other Palestinians charged by Israel, Halabi says he has been offered a series of plea deals, but unlike most prisoners before him, he has rejected them all. His first lawyer, and even an Israeli judge, urged him to accept, knowing that refusal can lead to longer jail terms. His current lawyer claims Halabi received offers that would have led to his immediate release with time served, allowing him to return to his wife and children in Gaza. But Halabi insists he is innocent of the charges, and has refused to make a deal. The arguments in court concluded in July this year, but Halabi remains in prison awaiting a verdict, which is expected this autumn.
The Israeli legal system, and the plea deal agreements on which its machinery turns, has been challenged by one man who refuses to accept his fate. World Vision’s programme quality director, Simon Manning, said that Halabi, who he worked with closely for several years, is a “stubborn” man who sticks to his principles. Manning was not surprised to hear Halabi had held out. “When they arrested Mohammed, they really had no idea who they were dealing with.”
w ^orking in Gaza has long presented a challenge for aid organisations. The tiny territory, squeezed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, is among the poorest in the world – more than two-thirds of its population rely on some form of humanitarian aid, 根据联合国. But Gaza is controlled and run by Hamas, who took control after elections in 2007 and have since since fought four wars with Israel.
As Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by most western nations, aid agencies cannot deal with them for fear of falling foul of sanctions. Large aid organisations have implemented strict processes to try to prevent money being co-opted or stolen – known in the industry as aid diversion – but theft can still occur.
Itay Epshtain, a special adviser to the Norwegian Refugee Council, which also provides aid in Gaza, described the rigorous mechanisms charities adopt to prevent aid diversion. “You do repeat monitoring – going back to check multiple times that if you provided a water pump or a hospital bed it is still there and operating as it should be. On top of that you have pre-planned and continuous external auditing to check how every dollar is spent.” In Gaza there was additional scrutiny as the Israeli government and some monitor organisations routinely make “bad faith” allegations that aid is being stolen by Hamas. “It absorbs a lot of management time,“ 他说.
The Israeli charge sheet listed 12 accusations against Halabi. Most, such as the claim he took part in a 2014 Hamas military exercise, were nearly impossible to assess without seeing the secret evidence the Israelis claimed to have. But others were easier to investigate. Halabi was accused of working with two agricultural companies, Al-Atar and Arcoma, which allegedly had ties to Hamas. The charge sheet claimed that, as head of World Vision’s Gaza office, Halabi had rigged the bidding process to ensure the two companies won “nearly all” contracts for providing food aid. Halabi and the companies then allegedly conspired to overcharge World Vision for their services, and funnelled the extra cash to Hamas.
In late August 2016, a few weeks after Halabi was charged, I visited the Al-Atar company headquarters in Gaza, where I found a forklift truck piling potatoes into a pickup. 管理者, Saqer Al-Atar, ushered me into his office. Atar insisted he had no relations with Hamas and that all contracts with World Vision were negotiated not with the Gaza team but the Jerusalem office. He said he barely knew Halabi. “I only know what he looks like. Maybe I wished him good morning once,“ 他说.
World Vision later confirmed that its total contracts with Al-Atar were worth a little over $30,000 a year for the past decade. The contracts awarded to Arcoma, which also denied any links to Hamas, amounted to about $80,000 一年. Between them, the two companies had won fewer than 50% of the bids for contracts with World Vision they entered, the organisation said.
The second of the 12 charges alleged that Halabi had transferred “thousands of tonnes of iron” meant for agricultural projects to Hamas, knowing it would be used to build tunnels under the Israeli border. World Vision said it had never imported iron into Gaza, nor bought any there, and any transaction of this scale would necessarily have involved the Jerusalem office, which meant Halabi could not have acted alone.
Until its licence was suspended, World Vision had provided a series of aid programmes in Gaza, ranging from education to psychological support and healthcare. In most cases they worked with local Palestinian organisations to implement the projects, and their partners were subject to vetting and security checks. Near the Israeli border in Beit Lahia, a farmer named Ayman Suboh showed off his strawberries. His farmland was near a Hamas base and had been badly battered in Israeli strikes during the war. World Vision provided thousands of dollars to help him rebuild. They carried out regular and often rigorous inspections of goods and products they had paid for, 他说, to ensure the money was correctly spent. “My hair would turn white as they inspected the corners (of the farm) and the plastic sheets, one by one,“ 他说.
During several days of investigation in Gaza, which I wrote about at the time for Agence France Presse, I found nothing to corroborate the Israeli allegations. But there were other charges I could not assess, based as they were on Halabi’s confession, which has never been made public, as well as on financial records and secret evidence.
In the days after Israel’s announcement, World Vision’s leaders were in emergency meetings. They had seen no evidence of Halabi’s alleged wrongdoings, but the Israeli accusations threatened not just their support to Palestinians but the charity’s entire future. If Hamas had indeed breached World Vision’s systems, it meant all their work was vulnerable to manipulation. Within two weeks of the Shin Bet press conference, Germany and Australia suspended all funding for World Vision projects in Gaza. The Australians threatened to cut all funding to World Vision globally, about $40m a year.
在 6 八月, World Vision’s then president Kevin Jenkins set up a crisis team. Chaired by the charity’s chief administrative officer, Andrew Morley, at first the team met daily via video link. It had about 10 成员, some in the region and others in head office. They had to deal with strong emotions inside the organisation. A decade earlier, allegations of corruption had emerged against a number of senior World Vision staff in Liberia. After receiving proof of their guilt, the organisation cut the staff off, and provided evidence to the prosecution. Some in senior management favoured a similar approach to Halabi, Lenneberg recalled. “They would say: ‘Why would the Israeli authorities go out so prominently with such a huge media campaign if there wasn’t some truth to it?’ It was a very difficult conversation.” Others, particularly those based in the Middle East who knew Halabi, argued he must be treated as innocent until proven guilty.
They reached a compromise: World Vision would pay Halabi’s legal fees unless and until it was presented with clear evidence of his guilt. Those fees could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. (World Vision declined to comment on the exact cost so far.) The same month, it commissioned Deloitte, one of the world’s largest auditing firms, and US law firm DLA Piper to review all their spending, which one source said cost an additional $7m (World Vision declined to confirm this). The results would reveal fundamental problems with the Israeli case.
大号ike most Palestinians, Mohammed El Halabi was born a refugee. His grandparents fled their home in the 1948 conflict that led to the creation of Israel. The Halabis set up base 15 miles south of their village in what later became the Jabalia refugee camp. Halabi’s father, Khalil, worked at the UN relief and works agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), which runs the majority of schools and medical facilities in Gaza. He became special adviser to the organisation’s then Gaza director, Robert Turner, and attended meetings with western politicians including Tony Blair and John Kerry.
Halabi was born in 1978, his parents’ first son. He did well at school, and in his teenage years took a growing interest in the wider world. 当时, foreign cultural and political delegations would visit Gaza, and his father recalls that Halabi used to attend meetings to learn about politics and practise his English. After leaving school, he went on to study engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. The Israeli prosecution would later claim that this choice of university, which they alleged had links with Hamas, was an indication of his sympathies. His family say it was the best university for engineering in Gaza, and point out he was a member of the university’s Fatah club, the secular party that opposes Hamas.
The wider Halabi family are open opponents of Hamas. One time in early 2019, Mohammed’s younger brother Hamed turned up for an interview with me nursing a cut to his head. He said he had been taking part in rare demonstrations in Gaza against Hamas rule when security forces beat and briefly detained him.
In the early 00s, longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, angered by the failure of peace deals, rallied his Fatah militia for a second uprising or intifada. But his control over the Palestinian movement was waning, and Hamas was rising, driven by a zeal Arafat’s secular cadres had long lost. Hamas leaders encouraged young recruits to blow themselves up on Israeli buses, killing scores of civilians. In the Israeli military crackdown that followed, Palestinians were subjected to nightly raids and curfews, with families often trapped in their homes for weeks.
In the midst of the fighting, 在 2003, Halabi’s family chose a wife for him. A few hundred people crammed into the Abu Haseera hotel along Gaza’s Mediterranean coast for his wedding to Ola. 两年后, the couple had the first of their five children. 在 2004, as conditions in Gaza became harsher, Halabi decided to swap engineering for aid work. The question of what motivated that change is at the root of the charges against him.
The Israeli charge sheet states that “during the year 2004 or thereabouts”, Halabi was approached by a Hamas militant, allegedly a commander in a small cell that included Halabi’s brother Diaa. (His brother Hamed says this is untrue. The UN confirmed that Diaa works as a nurse in one of their hospitals.) Because Halabi spoke English, a rare skill in Gaza, the militant allegedly decided his role would be to infiltrate an aid agency and work for Hamas from there.
Years later, Halabi explained his move in rather different terms, in an 面试 从 2014 in which he was described as a “humanitarian hero” by the UN. “After an invasion in my area which killed dozens of people and destroyed several houses, I decided to leave my work as an engineer and turn to humanitarian work,“ 他说. “I wanted to be able to help civilians and especially children.”
在 2005, Halabi got his first job with World Vision, supporting the office manager in Gaza City. The prosecution would later suggest the process by which he was employed was rigged. 然而, a World Vision employee at the time, an American who did not want to be named owing to their current senior role in the aid industry, said the first round of the hiring process was a test that was marked blind – meaning all details of the candidates were removed. Those who passed were interviewed by a panel of several staff, including the head of the Jerusalem office. The panel agreed unanimously that Halabi was the best candidate, the former employee said. “He came in with a lot of really good ideas, but wanted to learn from World Vision.”
Over several years, Halabi and the American former employee formed a close bond, professionally and personally. “I had worked with other staff in a similar capacity in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, and Mohammed was in many respects the star pupil,” the former employee said.
Halabi rose fast, 和在 2014 was promoted to head of the Gaza office. When there was fighting in Gaza, he was known for going to his staff’s homes to see how they were doing, despite the potential risks. His rotund form and round cheery face were well loved. “When you turned up at any of our projects, kids that knew him would run to him. The staff lit up when he walked into a room,” Lenneberg said.
Simon Manning, who joined World Vision in 2014, said Halabi could also be stubborn professionally. They worked closely on projects, and would spar, including when designing “child-friendly spaces” for children traumatised by the war. “It is hilarious, looking back, but I wanted to provide just water for the kids, but he was adamant it should be juice,” Manning said. “We spent more than a year arguing about it.” Another time at the end of the 2014 war Manning wanted to provide cash to displaced families rather than hygiene kits and food, but Halabi insisted cash was a bad idea as he had worries about the money being stolen. “He is just a stubborn guy – with all the positives and negatives that come with that,” Manning said.
Megan McGrath, a former World Vision project officer, believes Halabi saved her from an attempted abduction. The two met in the Egyptian Sinai region in 2012, where staff were gathering for meetings. On a day off, a small group decided to go quad biking in the desert, accompanied by two local men. McGrath, who was the only non-Arabic speaker on the trip, describes how Halabi got into a fight with the two guides after he heard them talking about kidnapping her for ransom. One of the would-be kidnappers had a knife. “He put his life on the line for someone he just met a day earlier,” McGrath said.
After that incident, McGrath and Halabi remained friends. During one of her trips to Gaza, around 2013, they were having dinner when the conversation turned to politics. “He explained to me that a number of his family had been arrested and he felt Hamas was responsible,” McGrath said. “He was crying. He really despised the [Hamas] leadership.”
Lenneberg, who worked in Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban in the 90s, as well as in Pakistan, south-east Asia and elsewhere, during a career spanning three decades, said she had no reason to distrust Halabi. “I am an experienced humanitarian worker. You can tell the staff who are on the take – their relationship with colleagues and communities is very different. Fear is palpable, the disconnect, the self-interest – it becomes clear very quickly. That was not Mohammed,“ 她说.
乙y March 2017, Halabi had been in jail for nine months. The media had long stopped reporting the story, with Donald Trump’s first chaotic months in office gripping global attention. That month, the Australian government completed a review of its funding of World Vision in Gaza – it had given them $8.1m for Gaza projects between 2014 和 2016, 多于 25% of World Vision’s entire Gaza budget, the charity told me. The Australian government concluded that there was no evidence any funds had been diverted. Four months later, the review World Vision had commissioned, from DLA Piper and auditors from Deloitte, was also completed. Its contents have remained classified until now.
The two companies conducted a year-long investigation. 之间 20 和 30 staff worked full-time, reviewing World Vision’s operations for the five years before Halabi’s arrest. “We have done a number of other investigations, both corporate and NGO, where we find evidence of malfeasance,” Brett Ingerman, a managing partner with DLA Piper, 告诉我. “We know what we are looking for, we know the ways that people who are trying to divert funds generally operate.”
The investigators faced obstacles: they could not access Halabi in jail, and the Israeli government refused to provide any documentation or evidence it possessed. They were also blocked by Hamas. On one occasion in 2016, when staff went to the offices of World Vision in Gaza to retrieve documents, Hamas authorities got wind of it and sealed the office off, which seemed suspicious. Ingerman said that, nonetheless, they had “more than sufficient documentation” to complete their investigation. The team carried out more than 70 interviews, including with former and current World Vision employees, and reviewed 280,000 emails. Deloitte reviewed every payment the organisation made over five years.
World Vision were paying for the investigation, but Ingerman insisted there was no interference. “We were given carte blanche by World Vision to conduct our investigation and follow the evidence wherever it led us,“ 他说.
They found no sign of any missing funds, and no evidence Halabi was working for Hamas – in fact, they reported that he consistently sought to distance the organisation from them. The closest they found to impropriety were a few times Halabi had slightly overstepped his authority – signing off a bill for a few hundred dollars more than his limit of $15,000, 例如. But they found nothing that could justify any of the Israeli claims. Crucially, they concluded that World Vision’s monitoring and evaluation systems had been robust. “I do NGO investigations in difficult parts of the world … and I did not see anything out of the ordinary here from a control perspective,” Ingerman said.
The audit may also provide an insight into where the Israelis got their initial suspicions of Halabi. A former employee of World Vision had left under a cloud and believed Halabi responsible for his difficulties with the organisation. Kaamil, whose name has been changed to avoid causing problems for his family still in Gaza, worked for World Vision in the strip until 2015. In late May that year he was detained by Hamas, who quizzed him about his work status. He was convinced that Halabi, with whom he had clashed professionally many times, was responsible for his arrest, and that Halabi was trying to force him out of World Vision. In early June, Kaamil sent an email with a series of allegations against Halabi to the organisation’s HR director in Jerusalem.
In the email, a copy of which was seen by the Guardian, Kaamil accuses Halabi of corruption for personal gain, and says he had links to Hamas. “The fact that there was no evidence doesn’t mean that a thing did not happen, it means that the person involved in corruption is smart,” he wrote in the email.
Kaamil left World Vision and left Gaza in 2016, a couple of months before Halabi was arrested. Speaking to me via email, Kaamil said his allegations were sent only to human resources, and insisted he never communicated with the Israelis in any form. He added that his disagreements with Halabi “ended with my resignation, and as soon as he was arrested by the (Israeli) occupation. Now he is in a position that deserves support.”
World Vision now accepts that the allegations were perhaps not dealt with as seriously as they should have been, though Lenneberg said she investigated Kaamil’s allegations after he left the organisation, touring projects in Gaza and meeting with partner organisations. She found no evidence of wrongdoing and said Kaamil provided no financial documents to back up his claims. “If you say he is taking money, show me where, show me how much,” Lenneberg said. “He could not give me one shred of evidence.”
The forensic audit by DLA Piper and Deloitte started by investigating Kaamil’s allegations. Ingerman said they found no evidence to support any of the claims.
The findings of the audit were sent to World Vision’s management in July 2017. They shared it with key international donors, as well as Halabi’s legal team. It was also offered to Israeli authorities, who declined to view it, World Vision said. In the following months, donors including Australia and Germany quietly reinstated funding, on the basis of the report’s findings. World Vision waited for the Israeli court to drop the charges against Halabi.
一种cquittals of Palestinians in Israeli courts are rare, so for the accused, going to trial represents a serious risk of a prison sentence. Many of the accused enter into plea deals in which they accept some or all charges in exchange for a reduced sentence. Supporters of the plea system argue that it enables the quicker processing of cases, while critics say it corners Palestinians into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.
“In some cases [the accused] understand that the chances of being found not guilty are very slim, and the chances of having a fair trial are not high,” Michael Lynk, UN special rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories, 告诉我. “Therefore, to shorten the time and have some certainty regarding when they will get out, they will accept a plea deal, even though they may not be guilty.”
Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli lawyer who has defended many Palestinians, said the Israeli legal system is set up around these deals. “If Palestinian defendants were to say they were no longer doing plea deals, the system would collapse the next day,“ 他说.
Many plea deals work like that of Waheed al-Borsh, a former UN employee. A week after Halabi was charged, in early August 2016, Israel charged Borsh with working for Hamas. Borsh, who worked at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was accused of moving 300 tonnes of rubble – ruins left after Israeli bombing during the 2014 war – to a specific site near Gaza’s coastline, knowing Hamas would then push it into the sea to build a military jetty. I visited the site in 2016 and found a new-looking jetty, perhaps 10ft wide and extending 50 metres into the sea, with armed Hamas fighters guarding the entrance. UNDP officials privately accepted that rubble dumped from one of its projects may have been used in the construction, but denied any collusion with Hamas. Borsh said the location for dumping the rubble was not his decision.
Borsh appointed as his lawyer Lea Tsemel, a Jewish Israeli who has represented hundreds of Palestinians over four decades. A fierce campaigner for Palestinian rights, she has become a hate figure for the Israeli right. 在 2019, a documentary about her work, Advocate, won awards at multiple international festivals. Tsemel is a realist. She got to work setting up a deal for Borsh. 在一月 2017, the most serious charges against her client were dropped. In exchange, he admitted “rendering services to an illegal organisation without intention”. He was sentenced to seven months but released immediately with time served. It was a typical plea deal, meaning that everyone got something. The Israelis could still say a UN employee had been convicted of aiding Hamas. Borsh was able to return to his family in Gaza – though his conviction means he is not allowed to return to work for the UN.
“They confirmed that [I didn’t do anything intentionally] but they took a long time,” Borsh told me in a brief phone call from his home in Gaza. He did not want to discuss the case in further detail. “It is enough what happened to me.”
After his arrest in 2016, Halabi also appointed Tsemel as his lawyer. I visited her office not long after, but she told me that the legal restrictions on the case meant she was unable to discuss many aspects of it. She feared it was risky to take the case to court – sentences are increased if you are perceived to have wasted the court’s time – so she quietly encouraged Halabi to take a deal if one was offered. An Israeli judge also told him in court in March 2017 he had “little chance” of avoiding conviction. “You’ve read the numbers and the statistics [of Palestinian convictions],” Judge Nasser Abu Taha told Halabi in court, according to a report from ABC Australia.
But Halabi refused. Multiple sources close to World Vision and Halabi said tensions between him and Tsemel grew during his first year in jail. Tsemel argued he was unlikely to get a fair trial and he should make a deal. Halabi said he was willing to pay any price rather than admit something he didn’t do. 到底, Halabi dropped Tsemel in summer 2017, and Maher Hanna, an Arab Israeli from Nazareth, took over. Tsemel said there were no hard feelings, just a difference of opinion.
“He asked me to leave the case because he felt he could make it (without a plea deal). I said alright, go ahead. He was so confident in himself that he went with this (方法). I appreciate it very much that a person feels he can make this war against a very big and heavy power in the security services and police. A lot depends on how much do we trust the courts, how much do we trust the security services to testify the truth,“ 她说.
Hanna said his brief after taking over was simple: fight all the way. ”[The prosecution] tried to negotiate about time [length of sentence] but it is irrelevant – the conflict is about the charge sheet,” Hanna told me in 2018. “Mohammed is very clear on that. He is not willing to take anything that charges him with anything related to terror. He is taking the risk that he might, God forbid, be sentenced for a much longer period.”
Halabi’s trial took place at the Beersheva district court. Deep in the Negev desert, Beersheva, a city of about 200,000, feels trapped in a perpetual sand storm. In summer, temperatures reach 45C. At the first public session on 12 一月 2017, cameramen jostled for a shot of Halabi. He was escorted by two guards. A reporter asked him in Arabic if he had a message for his family. “I want them to know I am OK and I am innocent of all these charges. Our work was purely humanitarian,“ 他说, looking straight into the journalist’s eyes.
Three judges sat raised in front of an Israeli flag, with chief justice Natan Zlotchover flanked by Yael Raz-Levi and Shlomo Friedlander. On days when sensitive evidence was to be discussed, an officer from Shin Bet sat in the back corner of the room guarding boxes full of evidence. Occasionally he was asked to bring a document forward for the defence to see, though they were never allowed to take a copy. At the back sat the few observers, when they were allowed to attend, including some from the UN. World Vision sent colleagues to every session that was open to the public – although almost all of the hearings related to prosecution evidence were behind closed doors, 联合国说.
At times the trial appeared to move in slow motion. On average one or two sessions took place a month, but it was not uncommon for a couple of months to pass without one. Sometimes the gaps were due to the defence or prosecution appealing on a particular matter, at others the three judges couldn’t find a time that fitted all their schedules. Halabi’s legal team usually argued sensitive sessions should be open, while the prosecution and security services demanded they be behind closed doors. The state usually won. Most of Halabi’s testimony, including nine days’ worth of cross-examination between June and November 2018, were heard behind closed doors. No transcripts were released. This is unusual, but not unheard of, in Israeli courts, in cases related to security issues. Israel argues other nations, including the UK, have similar laws in terrorism-related cases.
Shortly before each day’s proceedings began, Halabi would enter flanked by two prison officers, the chains on his feet clinking as he shuffled to a seat behind a plexiglass barrier. He sat for hours focused on the discussions, even though they took place in Hebrew, with the quality of Arabic translation often poor. He would wave to any World Vision staff who came to offer support. One time in 2018 when I was in court he spoke to the World Vision staff briefly before the court was in session, 说, “I must be patient.” He told them he filled his days in jail by teaching English to other prisoners and seeking to de-radicalise inmates who sympathised with Islamic State. “Of the four, I have convinced three,“ 他说.
The case dragged on. At different times, chief justice Zlotchover accused the defence and prosecution of sloppy work. Judge Raz-Levi often sat with her head in her hands, looking bored. One of the court-appointed Hebrew-Arabic translators seemed so poor that a Palestinian defence witness under examination barely understood proceedings.
Halabi is able to refuse a deal not just because of moral conviction, but also because he has the financial support to do so, with his hefty legal bill being covered by World Vision. Very few Palestinians would be able to afford such principled determination. But the personal toll is high. Halabi’s five children have lived most of their lives without their father. His youngest son, Faris, a baby in 2016, barely knows him. Halabi’s brother Hamed said the children had suffered. “Ramadan is the hardest time – it’s when the family should be together. There have now been six Ramadans where they didn’t have their father.”
一种t the centre of the case against Halabi is his alleged confession. Back in August 2016, when Shin Bet announced he had confessed, they gave few details, and the truth is still elusive. For several weeks after his arrest, Halabi was prevented from seeing a lawyer. During this time, he was interrogated by Israeli officers, to whom he denied every accusation, his legal team says. He was put in a cell with other Palestinian prisoners, one of whom called himself Abu Ibrahim. This man said he was from Hamas, but Halabi told his lawyers Abu Ibrahim was one of a number of spies Israel has throughout the prison systems, 昵称 asafeer, or “sparrows” in Arabic. Abu Ibrahim informed the Israeli authorities that Halabi confessed to him. Much rests on this man’s account, but his testimony was heard behind closed doors.
The state argued the confession to Abu Ibrahim was compelling evidence. When placed in a room with a man he thought was a Hamas ally, Halabi had bragged of his role, 他们说. If the sums of money Israel accused Halabi of stealing were overblown, it was he who had exaggerated. The numbers were not important, what mattered was the confession. “It’s like when you catch a serial killer, the question of whether he killed 50 people or 25 people is not really relevant is it?” Israel’s foreign ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told ABC News Australia in 2016.
A source close to the prosecution insisted the confession was not the only basis of their case, and that clear material evidence was presented to the court during closed sessions. The source also said the prosecution rested in June 2018. The Israeli justice ministry said in a statement that “the prosecution has agreed to Mr Halabi’s continuous requests for extensions … which resulted in the dragging out of the proceedings”. Hanna rejected this characterisation of events.
Halabi maintains he was beaten up by Israeli interrogators before he was put in a cell with Abu Ibrahim, where he remained for more than a week. The one time I was able to speak to him briefly in court, Halabi said he had hearing problems due to being punched in the head. The Israeli security services deny wrongdoing. The UN human rights body, which sent a lawyer to most public court sessions, has warned that his treatment under interrogation “may amount to torture”.
His lawyer, Hanna, said Halabi told him that, after days trapped in a room with Abu Ibrahim, he could hold out no more, and said whatever the agent wanted him to say. Hanna said Halabi believed the confession was so wild, and the details so clearly unbelievable, that the case would fall apart in court. “He says he knew Abu Ibrahim was a collaborator,” Hanna said. “From the first minute the [警察] investigator entered the room, 他说: ‘All I have said I was [forced] to say by Abu Ibrahim. It is all false, you can check it.’”
Hanna argued that the confession was given under duress, and therefore could not be used in court. After six months going back and forth, 在六月 2020, the district court ruled with the state: the confession was admissible. With that, Halabi’s hopes of freedom dimmed.
In November 2020, after the trial had dragged on for four and a half years, Michael Lynk and his colleagues – UN Special Rapporteurs on torture, arbitrary executions and judicial independence – issued a statement denouncing the trial. “What is happening to [Halabi] bears no relation to the trial standards we expect from democracies,” they said. “It’s particularly disturbing that the prosecution is relying upon confessions allegedly obtained by force while he was denied access to a lawyer, and on testimony from undercover informers.” The Israeli Justice Ministry said that throughout his trial Halabi has received “full legal rights, including the right to a fair trial, to representation and of appeal to the Supreme Court”.
在七月 2021, the defence and prosecution summed up their cases. The sessions were completely closed to the public. The judges are expected to take at least three months to deliberate.
Mohammed El Halabi has taken an enormous gamble – that he can win a case in a language he doesn’t speak, in a country where many consider him an enemy. “If there is any value in the facts, he will be acquitted,” Hanna said. “But if facts don’t matter, he will go down. We have to believe that the facts matter.”