A verdict issued by Israel’s Beersheva District Court on June 15, which convicted the aid organization World Vision’s Gaza manager Muhammad el-Halabi of a series of security-related offences, revealed many of the fundamental problems plaguing the humanitarian aid industry. The court described in stark terms how Halabi used his position to bolster Hamas’ military capabilities and pay salaries to its fighters, all under the guise of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Gazans.
The court determined that, while heading the NGO’s Gaza operations, Halabi aided Hamas in a variety of ways, including diverting World Vision building materials to Hamas military installations, doling out World Vision funds to the group’s fighters and securing equipment for terrorists.
The Halabi case highlights the ease with which an aid agency can be taken over by a terrorist organization. Due to Halabi’s position and the lack of effective supervision of World Vision operations in Gaza, his fraud and diversion of funds and equipment to terrorists were easily hidden. For example, an outside auditor would see vouchers provided to eligible Gazans, but did not know that recipients were armed Hamas members. Similarly, an auditor would identify equipment and materials that had been issued to construct a hothouse, but did not know that the structure was built to hide Hamas tunnels.
Even given such difficulties, the Israeli court’s verdict found World Vision’s monitoring woefully lacking, labelling it “remote control oversight.”
Frighteningly, World Vision’s one genuine attempt at responsible oversight was thwarted. According to the verdict, in 2015 a Gaza-based accountant for World Vision informed the organization about his concerns regarding the diversion of funds to Hamas. He was fired and then interrogated by Hamas. Halabi had a copy of the interrogation on his personal computer.
The Gaza affair was not the only terror-related World Vision scandal in recent years. In December 2020, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee published a memo detailing its investigation into the partnership between World Vision and a U.S.-designated terror organization—the Islamic Relief Agency (ISRA). The Finance Committee document notes that ISRA has “an extensive history of supporting terrorist organization [sic]”—such as Hamas—“and terrorists, including Osama Bin Laden.”
While it would be comforting to believe that this problem is limited to World Vision, it is actually much bigger. Many aid industry officials espouse a “humanitarian imperative,” which prioritizes the provision of humanitarian aid over all other considerations. As a result, humanitarian actors around the world have sought exemptions and dispensations that allow them to avoid anti-terror regulations, particularly since 9/11. They have lobbied to have as few strings attached to government funding as possible, arguing that their motives are pure and their judgement is sound.
For example, UNICEF calls on humanitarian organizations to “maintain their ability to obtain and sustain access to all vulnerable populations and to negotiate such access with all parties to the conflict.” The implication is that aid organizations should engage with terror groups in order to gain access to affected populations, as has occurred in Syria and Somalia over the past decade.
Similarly, on December 17, 2020, Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Secretary-General Jan Egeland addressed a conference organized by the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. He demanded “exemptions from counter-terrorism laws and sanctions regimes. … We need blanket humanitarian exemptions.” Egeland added, “We need you to champion that there will be no vetting of the ultimate beneficiaries of humanitarian relief.”
In May 2020, NRC and its partners successfully convinced the primary U.S. aid funding mechanism—USAID—to relax the vetting procedures incumbent upon primary grantees when considering partners. As a result of the lobbying, USAID removed language that required aid recipients to “consider all information about that individual or entity of which it is aware and all public information that is reasonably available to it or of which it should be aware.” USAID also reportedly agreed to cut the “look-back” period in which a grantee certifies it has not provided material support to terrorist entities for three to 10 years.
Egeland’s position belies the aid industry’s dogmatic self-assurance that its members can always navigate the risks associated with working in conflict areas. As the Israeli judges observed regarding World Vision employees who testified in the Halabi case, “They are apparently trapped in a preconceived notion that does not accord with the circumstances in the region: That their professionalism will absolutely and always prevent any fraud or abuse of trust.” This appeared to be borne out when the leadership of both World Vision International and World Vision Australia initially claimed that Israeli charges of aid diversion in Gaza were “hard to reconcile.”
It is precisely for that reason that it is incumbent on donor governments to maintain rigorous and robust standards when working with the aid industry. NGOs like NRC and World Vision may not like them, but anti-terror regulations exist to prevent malign actors from exacerbating volatile situations and subsidizing their war machines through aid money and materials. For all of its assumed good intentions, the aid industry should not receive a blank check.
Yona Schiffmiller is Head of Research for NGO Monitor.
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