On 4 August 2016, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) announced that Mohammad El Halabi, World Vision’s Gaza branch director, had confessed to diverting the NGO’s funds and resources to ‘benefit Hamas’ terrorist and military activities’. He had been arrested two months earlier by Israeli security forces. The MFA also stated: ‘more than half of World Vision’s resources in the Gaza Strip—originating in aid money from Western states such as the United States, England and Australia—were transferred to Hamas to strengthen its terrorist arm’.
More than 12 months after El Halabi’s arrest, the multiple investigations into the matter appear unresolved and El Halabi’s trial is ongoing. Meanwhile, World Vision’s operations in Gaza have been halted and Australian funding to World Vision programs in the Palestinian Territories (PT) remains suspended. Eighty per cent of Gaza’s population is dependent on international assistance, and in 2015 World Vision’s work in the broader PT directly benefited around 92,000 children.
In the week following Israel’s announcement, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and World Vision announced internal investigations into the incident. However, as at late October 2017, the findings of these investigations have not been formally released.
In November 2016 Senate Estimates hearings, DFAT noted that the head of its fraud section was undertaking the department’s investigation into the 2016 incident. The investigation was expected to be finished and considered ‘maybe in the next few weeks or month’. In March 2017, ABC News reported that DFAT had concluded its investigation and had issued a brief statement:
DFAT has reviewed the management of its funding to World Vision in the Palestinian territories. The review uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government funds. Australia’s funding to World Vision in the Palestinian territories remains suspended until we have considered the outcomes of the court case against Mr El Halabi and reviews being undertaken by World Vision Australia and World Vision International into this issue.
Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, issued a clarification shortly after via Twitter, which highlighted that the results of DFAT’s investigation did not presume to reflect on the issue of El Halabi’s guilt:
In response to recent media reporting, I wish to make clear the Australian Government’s position regarding the allegations against World Vision employee Mr El Halabi.
The Israeli court case will determine World Vision employee Mr El Halabi’s innocence or guilt.
While DFAT conducted a review of its aid management and found nothing to indicate any awareness on our part of Mr Halabi’s alleged wrongdoing, World Vision International and World Vision Australia have also commissioned independent reviews which are ongoing, and the Israeli Court case continues.
Australian aid funding to World Vision will remain suspended until we consider the outcomes of these processes.
In Senate Estimates on 10 November 2016, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong asked DFAT for an update on the World Vision investigations. DFAT confirmed that World Vision had two investigations underway at that time:
There are two World Vision inquiries underway. World Vision International has engaged a forensic auditor to look into whether they could possibly have known about the events that are alleged Mr Mohammed El Halabi was involved in. They are looking at their own processes. So that is being run by World Vision International. They have engaged Deloitte to do that. Separately to that, World Vision Australia is doing a review of their processes in relation to their relationship with the World Vision offices in the Middle East. That independent investigation is being done by Ernst and Young.
While World Vision does not appear to have publicly disclosed any findings, the organisation continues to support its employee. In February 2017, World Vision’s regional leader for the Middle East attended a trial hearing in support of El Halabi, where she said to ABC News that the organisation had not yet seen any evidence of El Halabi’s guilt. The head of World Vision International, Kevin Jenkins, had earlier pointed out that World Vision’s cumulative operating budget in Gaza for the past ten years was approximately US$22.5 million, making the alleged diversion of up to US$50 million ‘hard to reconcile’.
As such, resolution of the matter, or at least further responses from the parties involved, may hinge on the ongoing trial of El Halabi. However, delays in this process have been ongoing, ostensibly because El Halabi recanted his 2016 confession—the principal evidence of his guilt publicly presented so far—and refused a plea deal. In January 2017, Israeli authorities also charged El Halabi with additional terrorism-related offences, reportedly unrelated to the World Vision fraud allegations. As such, he could be convicted on charges unrelated to the World Vision case. Israel’s Justice Ministry and Australian officials have declined to comment on El Halabi’s case while the trial is still underway.
Australian aid to the Palestinian Territories
Australia has a long history of providing development assistance to the Palestinian Territories (see figure 1). However, DFAT notes Australia’s contribution equates to less than 0.5 per cent of the PT’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2015, Australia was the 11th largest official development assistance (ODA) contributor to the PT, with the US, Germany and the UK the three largest.
Figure 1. Australian ODA allocations to the Palestinian Territories 2006–07 to 2017–18 (AU$m)
Source: DFAT statistical summaries compiled by the Parliamentary Library
Roughly half of Australia’s funding has generally gone to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, then other UN agencies and non-government organisations. World Vision receives funding under the Australian Middle East NGO Cooperation Agreement (AMENCA), now in its third iteration from 2015–20. World Vision was also a partner under the 2009–15 AMENCA agreement. Both programs were worth approximately AU$40 million over five years (2009–15 and 2015–20) and World Vision was one of multiple partners working in the Palestinian Territories.
In the case of the PT, DFAT also notes its program has ‘strong measures in place’ to manage the risk of aid funding being diverted to terrorism—a noted risk for any Gaza operation. In 2014, DFAT conducted a specific review of the AMENCA program following allegations in 2012 that funding had been inadvertently provided by an Australian NGO to a local partner with terrorist links. The review found that these claims could not be substantiated. The review also examined DFAT’s counter-terrorism risk management mechanisms and the practices of local implementing partners (including World Vision) and found that both were satisfactory. DFAT’s 2015 Aid Investment Plan Palestinian Territories: 2015–2019 also addresses the prospect of Australian aid being subverted to terrorist groups and specifies DFAT’s risk mitigation measures.