RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel’s arrest of the Gaza director of an evangelical Christian aid group for redirecting millions of dollars in assistance to the militant group Hamas has sent shock waves throughout the Palestinian territories and left many worried that the incident will jeopardize all charity missions, even as Gaza struggles to recover from a war two years ago.
Many Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are bracing for the fallout as authorities prepare to lay out the case against Mohammed El Halabi, the chief executive of World Vision and one of the most prominent aid executives in the territory.
“If Israel has evidence to prove that El Halabi turned 60 percent of World Vision’s money into funding for Hamas, a cruel catastrophe will hit Palestinian society,” said Bassam Eid, a human rights activist who has fallen out with local leaders for criticizing corruption within the Palestinian Authority.
“This will also prevent other [nongovernmental organizations] from working in the West Bank as well as in Gaza,” he said.
Mr. El Halabi, who has been detained since June, was officially charged Thursday at a court in Beersheba with organizing a five-year-long fraud operation that prosecutors say helped Islamist militant group Hamas build arms-smuggling tunnels, amass arms and other supplies, and stage terrorist attacks against Israelis. A dominant political force in the crowded Palestinian enclave, Hamas has long refused to recognize the existence of Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by Washington.
Israel’s internal security agency known as Shabak, or Shin Bet, says most of World Vision’s resources in the Gaza Strip — some $7.2 million annually, largely from donors and governments in Western countries including the U.S., England and Australia — were transferred to Hamas to strengthen its terrorist arm.
Specifically, the Shabak charge sheet says Mr. El Halabi established humanitarian projects and fictitious agricultural associations to serve as cover for the transfer of funds to Hamas. In one of the most stunning charges, prosecutors say the World Vision chief funded greenhouses to hide sites where tunnels were being dug. Those tunnels proved devastatingly effective in the clashes with Israeli forces two years ago.
Mr. El Halabi reportedly confessed that the aid funding went to the tunnels to stage attacks inside southern Israel and provide money and food rations for Islamist militants, but his attorney issued a strong statement Sunday asserting his innocence.
“Mohammad El Halabi denies all these accusations. He denied it all,” Jerusalem-based lawyer Mohammad Mahmoud told Reuters by phone.
In a rare public statement, Israeli intelligence officials said Mr. El Halabi revealed that he has been a Hamas operative since he was a youth undergoing organizational and military training in the early 2000s.
But given the deep distrust that runs through Gaza toward the Jewish state, doubts about the sensational charges are rampant.
In Gaza, Hamad El Halabi, the suspect’s 33-year-old brother, dismissed Israeli claims that they had obtained a confession from his brother.
“Israel wants to destroy the work of humanitarian organizations in Gaza in order to keep its blockade,” said Hamad El Halabi, claiming authorities prevented the family from visiting his brother. “World Vision is considered one of most active organizations in Gaza, and this is part of [the Israeli] effort to limit their humanitarian work.”
Meanwhile, World Vision communications director Cynthia Colin said the charity’s programs in Gaza have been subject to regular internal and independent audits.
“There are broad ranges of internal controls aimed at ensuring that assets reach their intended beneficiaries and are used in compliance with applicable laws and donor requirements,” said Ms. Colin. “Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true.”
But officials in Ramallah, which is under control of the rival Palestinian Authority, say they do not have the means to supervise the activities and funding of charities in Islamist-dominated Gaza. They fear the arrest could cast a shadow over all international aid efforts to boost the Palestinians.
“In the West Bank, there are controls over NGOs,” said Suzan Khalaf, who monitors charity oversight for the Palestinian Authority. “So far, we have been unable to supervise World Vision’s work in Gaza. But this case is likely to impact donor projects in the West Bank as well as Gaza with more conditions being imposed by donors.”
On Friday, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs suspended funding to World Vision, saying any diversion of the generous support of the international community for military or terrorist purposes by Hamas is to be deplored and can only harm the Palestinian people.” Germany also announced that it was cutting off funds to the group.
Muslim charity groups anticipate having to step up their fundraising for Gaza, which suffers from a 43 percent unemployment rate — the highest in the world.
“If the money comes from a country that’s friendly with Israel, it will stop and even neutral countries will also start thinking about whether it’s worth it to run projects in Palestine,” said Mohammad Hasna, director of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation in Gaza. “Terrorism has become a phobia for many countries, and they will pull out of projects in Palestine.”
Beneficiaries of World Vision’s projects in Gaza worry that the case against Mr. El Halabi will hurt their ability to recover from damages caused by three major wars against the 140-square-mile enclave in less than a decade.
“My farm was destroyed in the last war, and it was World Vision who came and provided me with fences, trees and water,” said Akram abu-Ghosah, referring to Operation Protective Edge in 2014. “Stopping the work of World Vision in Gaza means the death of these projects.”
Kazam Al-Attari, 31, said he created a library after taking World Vision workshops on starting a business. He said World Vision monitored his project during the three years he received funding.
“Stopping the work of the World Vision means that I cannot keep developing my library as I was looking for with the support of the World Vision,” Mr. Al-Attari said.
Many Israelis are unlikely to be sympathetic, saying many international aid organizations reflexively side with Palestinians against Israel.
“Sadly, World Vision is not the only charity organization that has been dragged into the anti-Israel efforts,” columnist Arial Bolstein wrote in the newspaper Israel Hayom. “Other organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have also fallen into the same trap.”
Some say the World Vision case could bring a major shift in global attitudes toward aid for the Palestinians, especially those tied to Gaza and Hamas.
“I think this case is a turning point in the struggle to deprive terrorists from the oxygen they receive in the form of aid,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, head of the Israeli Law Center, a group that has challenged Hamas funding via American courts. “People are beginning to understand that aid to Gaza means money to kill Jews.”