(CNSNews.com) – World Vision said Thursday it was “shocked” to hear allegations that a senior staff member in Gaza diverted millions of donors’ aid dollars to Hamas for terrorist activity. The international Christian charity finds itself under an uncomfortable spotlight after facing accusations of anti-Israel bias for years.
In response to Israel’s criminal charges against its Gaza operations manager Mohammed el-Halabi, World Vision said its programs are subject to regular internal and independent audits and other controls, aimed at ensuring the aid reaching the intended recipients.
According to a court indictment filed Thursday, Halabi was recruited into Hamas’ military wing in 2004 and tasked to infiltrate World Vision.
Tens of millions of dollars in aid, sent from the U.S. and Europe, had allegedly been siphoned off and used by Hamas for weapons and to build tunnels used by the terrorist group to carry out cross-border attacks, it said.
Halabi was arrested by the Shin Bet security agency while crossing the Israel-Gaza border on June 15. At the time, World Vision described him as a “widely respected and well regarded humanitarian.”
In announcing the allegations Thursday, Shin Bet said the funds diverted to Hamas amounted to about 60 percent of World Vision’s total annual budget for the Gaza Strip – or about $7.2 million a year.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is a major donor to World Vision International, accounting for its second largest grant in 2014, worth a total of $85.04 million. Only the World Food Program granted more.
Another major funder is the Australian government ($26.3 million in 2014), whose foreign affairs and trade department said Friday it was investigating the claims and suspending funding to World Vision.
Halabi revealed that he funneled the money in various ways, including falsifying documents, inflating receipts, and setting up fictitious projects. Funds and food packages intended for the needy went to Hamas instead.
Shin Bet said Halabi had also provided information about other individuals who use their positions working for humanitarian and U.N. agencies in Gaza to support Hamas.
A Shin Ben official quoted by Yediot Ahronot said the scale of the theft of funds at World Vision illustrated “weak supervision” in aid agencies.
“These organizations do good work and we don’t have any doubt about their intentions,” the official said. “We believe that Hamas took advantage of their naivety.”
A less charitable view was taken by Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, who tweeted: “World Vision Int. financed ‘unwittingly’ Hamas terror tunnels. How negligent can you be?”
‘Impartiality and neutrality’
World Vision said Thursday that it “subscribes to the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality and therefore rejects any involvement in any political, military or terrorist activities.”
Critics over the years have attributed to World Vision a pro-Palestinian bias.
Among others, pro-Israel Christians have been troubled by the stance taken by a major evangelical organization whose work around the world is generally held in high regard.
“The bulk of World Vision’s work involves assisting poor communities, and rarely crosses the line into political or theological controversies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an exception,” Luke Moon of the Institute of Religion and Democracy wrote in a July 2014 edition of The Tower.
“World Vision makes no secret of its distaste for Zionism, both Jewish and Christian.”
As long ago as 2004, NGO Monitor, an Israeli group that monitors the work of civil society groups working in the region, summed up World Vision as follows: “Tacit support for terror and a highly politicized agenda reflecting anti-Israel rhetoric and biased history, under the guise of ‘development assistance and justice.’”
‘Lies, ignorance, and half-truths’
Last year an evangelical publication carried an article comprising excerpts of a speech by World Vision vice president Steve Haas, in which he criticized both Israel and Christians who support in on theological grounds.
“[F]or over 60 years, many evangelicals have clung to a very narrow theological narrative that weds Christian theology with a political ideology known as Zionism. This is a national movement to return Jews to Israel, which Jews perceive as their sovereign homeland,” Haas said.
“This theological position has backed the largest and longest occupation of another people group in modern history, an oppressive Israeli legal system which [former South African Archbishop Desmond] Tutu and many other church leaders have called ‘apartheid on steroids,’” Haas said.
The statements caused a stir in some Christian and Jewish circles.
“The toxic mix of lies, ignorance, and half-truths that drive the global movement to delegitimize Israel have washed up at one of the most widely known international Christian aid organizations,” Stearns charged.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center also condemned Haas’ remarks. It called “on World Vision to reconsider its hostile stance on Israel, on evangelicals to reaffirm their historic friendship to the Jewish State, and on Jews to speak to their Christian friends about where they can better direct their charitable contributions without damaging the interests of Israel and of Jewish-Evangelical relations.”
World Vision subsequently issued a statement saying the article excerpting Haas’ speech “does not accurately reflect World Vision’s position and views toward the State of Israel and the Palestinian people and was published without proper World Vision approvals.”
It said World Vision acknowledges both the historic Jewish and historic Palestinian connections to the land.
“We also believe that sustainable peace cannot be fully realized under the realities of military occupation,” the group added.