Millions of pounds donated to the Christian charity World Vision were secretly diverted to the Islamist group Hamas, including £60,000 from the UK that went to building a base for militants, Israel said on Thursday.
Israeli investigators arrested an alleged Hamas operative who they said infiltrated the charity and rose to become its director in Gaza only to use his position to funnel £5.3 million a year to the militant group.
Around 60 per cent of the funds meant to ease suffering in the Gaza Strip were instead diverted to paying Hamas salaries and readying the group for war with Israel, according to the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of MI5.
World Vision denied the allegations but the case casts a harsh spotlight on one of the world’s biggest charities.
The group has an annual budget of more than £2 billion and a roster of celebrity backers that includes Bill Clinton, Scarlett Johansson and Justin Bieber.
The charity’s UK branch receives funding from the British government but the Department for International Development (Dfid) does not fund its work in Gaza.
However, around £60,000 given to World Vision by British donors was used to fund a Hamas military base code-named “Palestine”, the Shin Bet said.
“$80,000 received from the United Kingdom went to construction costs of the base, paid in cash, while salaries were paid to terrorists who worked in the construction of the base.”
A British government spokesman said the UK was in touch with Israel about the allegations.
Australia said on Friday it was suspending funding for the relief group in response to the allegations.
The country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) called the allegations “deeply troubling” and said in a statement that it was “urgently seeking more information from World Vision and the Israeli authorities”.
World Vision said it was standing by its employee Mohammed El-Halabi and was “shocked” at the charges against him.
“Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true,” the charity said.
Israel said that El-Halabi, a Palestinian man from Gaza, was a lifelong member of Hamas and received military training in the early 2000s before Hamas leaders ordered him “to infiltrate” World Vision in 2005.
He rose through the ranks of the charity until he became its director in Gaza, giving him control of millions of dollars in budgets, the Shin Bet said.
He then allegedly used his position to steer money back to Hamas through a range of methods including putting militants on the payroll and issuing tenders for humanitarian projects that never existed.
He is also accused of transferring construction equipment and building materials to Hamas, which then used them for building bases and tunnels to infiltrate into Israel.
“The humanitarian aid donated for the residents of the Gaza Strip was in actual fact given almost exclusively to Hamas terrorists and their families,” the Shin bet said.
Money was also allegedly used to buy weapons for Hamas from Egyptian groups in the Sinai desert while Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, was in power.
“We will carefully review any evidence presented to us and will take appropriate actions based on that evidence. We continue to call for a fair, legal process for Mohammad,” World Vision said.
Israel has long warned that aid to Gaza was going to Hamas and said the case was proof of “Hamas’s cynical exploitation of international humanitarian aid and resources donated by Western nations”.
The coastal enclave of 1.8 million is cut off by a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade and has been the scene of three wars between Hamas and Israel since 2009. Around 75,000 people are still displaced after the 2014 war and most Gazans have only four hours of electricity a day.
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