In the World Vision Gaza case, words matter

In the World Vision Gaza case

A statement and subsequent clarification by DFAT officials have been the basis for news reports that cast aspersions on Israel’s allegations that a top World Vision employee in Gaza, Mohammad El-Halabi, had diverted aid money to Hamas. Yet a close reading of the statements together suggests the substance of DFAT’s statements don’t justify the headlines.

On March 21, ABC’s Middle East Correspondent Sophie McNeill filed stories for the network based on the following statement by an unnamed DFAT official:

“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”

On the ABC website, McNeill’s story received the somewhat misleading headline “No evidence of diversion of World Vision funds to Hamas, DFAT says” – misleading because the headline created the impression that DFAT was exonerating World Vision, when actually all the statement said was that DFAT had not determined that the money that the Australia government had given to World Vision for projects in Gaza had been misused. The statement had nothing to say about whether World Vision had diverted donations from other sources to Hamas – indeed, it appeared that such an investigation would have been entirely outside of DFAT’s purview. 

On March 29, Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma issued the following clarification:

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 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade conducted a review of its aid management and found nothing to indicate any awareness on our part of Mr El-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.

The key excerpt from this clarification is Sharma’s comment that DFAT’s review “found nothing to indicate any awareness on our part of Mr El-Halabi’s alleged wrongdoing”.

In other words, while the March 21 statement appeared to say that DFAT had not found that any Australian government project funds had been misused, Sharma’s March 29 statement clarified that DFAT’s review had determined only that no representatives of Australia were aware of any wrongdoing that the suspect had committed. Furthermore, Sharma’s statement stressed in no way should this be construed as an judgment on whether or not El-Halabi had committed the crimes Israel had charged him with.

Nevertheless, McNeill’s follow-up report on the case on March 29 downplayed the importance on Sharma’s statement – focusing instead on the likelihood of El-Halabi’s conviction should he not agree to plea bargain and including a short excerpt of Sharma’s statement without further comment.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press, reporting on Sharma’s statement in an article the following day, completely twisted its meaning, in an article headlined “Australia finds no proof its World Vision aid went to Hamas”.

Israel’s case is continuing and is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the media, because it has a policy of not commenting on open investigations.

One must also consider the strong possibility that even a resolution of the charges against El-Halabi may not put such media speculation against Israel’s case to rest, since it may well not be resolved in a manner that appears conclusive to the public.

The closed-door nature of the trial – due to the classified and sensitive nature of the sources Israel uses to gather intelligence in Hamas-controlled Gaza – may make it difficult to satisfy the public’s desire for complete disclosure about evidence used in the case.

While this reality may leave Israel at a disadvantage in the court of public opinion, it is likely that Israel’s intelligence establishment already factored this in when choosing to arrest El-Halabi but decided it was a case worth pursuing in order to prevent Hamas from using NGOs as a source of funding in the future.

As left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz‘ analyst Anshel Pfeffer tweeted in August 2016, after El-Halabi’s arrest:

3 takeaways from @WorldVision case
1. Large western NGOs that distribute millions annually do serious audits. I’m sure they tried to in Gaza
2. Shin Bet trying for years to nail an NGO being used to funnel Hamas $s
I’ll be surprised if their @WorldVision case isn’t near-watertight
3. Bad news for people of Gaza & western NGOs. Hamas runs the place and can subvert even the best audits @WorldVision won’t be the last case

Ahron Shapiro