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Israel Palestinians: Court Finds Gaza Aid Worker Guilty of Diverting Funds to Hamas

Max King



Image source, AFP

The original claims were jaw-dropping: Israeli security officials accused a Gaza aid worker of diverting up to $50m (£41.5m) of donations to the Islamist militant group Hamas.

It was alleged the money – which would have amounted to one of the biggest thefts of humanitarian funds in history – paid for rockets and tunnels used to attack Israel.

After exactly six years in detention, Mohammed Halabi sat solemnly in the dock at Beersheba District Court in southern Israel as he was found guilty of 13 charges, including belonging to a terrorist organisation and transferring “considerable sums” to Hamas.

His employer, the global charity World Vision, stated: “In our view there have been irregularities in the trial process and a lack of substantive, publicly available evidence.”

International human rights groups described the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice”, saying it was not supported by independent audits, with key evidence kept secret.

The head of the UN human rights office in the Palestinian territories said there had been “enormous pressure on Mr Halabi to confess in the absence of evidence”.

However, judges said they relied on what they described as a “credible and corroborated” confession given to Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service.

‘Sophisticated apparatus’

After Mohammed Halabi, the head of World Vision’s Gaza office, was arrested by Israeli security forces at the Erez crossing, nothing was immediately heard of him and he had no access to a lawyer.

A month later, the local headquarters of the charity in Jerusalem was raided by dozens of Shin Bet officers, without his name being mentioned.

Then in August, Shin Bet provided journalists with an information sheet alleging that Mohammed Halabi was “actually a major figure in the terrorist/military arm of Hamas”.

It detailed how, it said, he had used “a sophisticated and systematic apparatus” to transfer 60% of the charity’s annual budget for Gaza to the militant group.

Image source, Reuters

He was alleged to have set up projects ostensibly for farmers, fishermen, the sick and people with disabilities as a cover to siphon off funds for Hamas.

In addition, he was said to have imported materials, including thousands of tonnes of iron ore, under the guise of aid work – which were then passed to Hamas to build tunnels.

This was presented as clear evidence that Hamas, which governs Gaza and is designated as a terrorist group by Israel, the US, EU and other powers, stole donations intended for desperate residents and did not respect the neutrality of aid workers.

On his official YouTube channel, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it starkly: “Hamas stole critical support for Palestinian children, so that it could kill our children.”

‘Such a good man’

World Vision, a large Christian charity with an annual budget of more than $3bn (£2.5bn), operates in 100 countries and employs tens of thousands of people.

The allegations against one of its high-ranking staff threatened its reputation. Major donors, including the Australian and German governments, froze all funding to its Gaza projects. Soon the local office, employing 120 staff, was closed.

However, from the outset World Vision found serious holes in the Israeli case. Its entire Gaza budget over the previous decade had been $22.5m – which it said made the original allegation of the diversion of over twice that amount “hard to reconcile”.

Image source, AFP

Large tenders for Gaza contracts were also handled by the Jerusalem office and it did not import iron ore into the territory.

Furthermore, experienced colleagues rejected outright the portrait painted of Mohammed Halabi.

“He was such a good man doing incredibly skilful work that made a real difference,” Conny Lenneburg, the former head of World Vision’s Middle East operations, told me.

He worked on small-scale agricultural projects, creating businesses for vulnerable women and providing psycho-social support for children traumatised by war.

Ms Lenneburg remembered details such as his insistence that farmers who were helped to grow tasty strawberries for profitable export to Europe had to sell a quarter of their crop to Gaza locals. “A militant doesn’t have these kinds of ideas. It’s a person who really cares about community,” she said.

Confession ‘coerced’

World Vision asked one of the largest international accountancy firms, Deloitte, and global lawyers DLA Piper to carry out an independent forensic audit of its Gaza operations.

Scrutiny of payments and 280,000 emails, as well as dozens of interviews, found no evidence of missing funds or criminal behaviour.

Neither did an Australian government review of funding for World Vision.

In what it says is the absence of evidence of Mohammed Halabi’s guilt, World Vision has continued to pay his legal fees.

Speaking outside the Beersheba courtroom after the guilty verdict, defence lawyer Maher Hanna said: “The summary we heard, I can assure you as someone who’s followed this case for six years, has nothing to do with the evidence. It’s really shocking.”

“All the judge said was that the security forces cannot be wrong. That’s why he was convicted.”

In his summary, Judge Natan Zlotchover described the defendant as “an educated, sophisticated, calculated person” who he said had been recruited by Hamas to infiltrate World Vision and had continued to meet members of its armed wing to discuss their needs.

He had given “a confession that presents a coherent story, which is interwoven with many details” and which was “unlikely” to have been fabricated by him at the time of confession, the judge added.

It is understood that key to the prosecution case was a confession that Mohammed Halabi made to a fellow detainee acting as an undercover informant which, he has maintained, was coerced under threat of physical violence.

Mr Hanna told me that classified documents had been lost and that there had been “unprecedented” constraints on his work, such as having to use a Shin Bet computer under guard to write his court submissions and having notes he took in closed hearings destroyed.

He said that over the years his client had consistently refused Israeli offers of a plea bargain, which could have seen him released, because he would not admit any wrongdoing.

Family heartbreak

Mohammed Halabi’s imprisonment has taken a heavy toll on his family. The youngest of his five children, Fares, was a baby when he was jailed and has no memory of him.

However, his father Khalil – himself a long-time UN employee – supports what he sees as his son’s moral position, believing the charges against him were made to delegitimise Palestinian civil society.

He insisted that the family had no links to Hamas.

“Everybody knows my ideology and Mohammed’s ideology is different,” he said. “[We] support just the peaceful projects, not related to Hamas.”

Hamas militants have fought four major conflicts with Israel, which imposes tight border restrictions on Gaza along with Egypt, citing security reasons.

At the same time, the dire economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza means that, according to the UN, more than two thirds of the 2 million population rely on some form of aid.

While no case has been so dramatic as that of Mohammed Halabi, Palestinian aid workers have previously been convicted on terrorism-related charges in Israel.

Following Wednesday’s verdict, the Israeli foreign ministry said: “Israel acknowledges the importance of humanitarian work in Gaza and continues to support international efforts to provide assistance to the Gazan population.”

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Nato Summit: Turkey Pushes Finland and Sweden on Extradition After Deal

Max King



Image source, Getty Images

Turkey says it will now be pushing for the extradition of 33 “terror” suspects from Finland and Sweden, under a deal that lifted Ankara’s objections to the two Nordic states’ bids to join Nato.

Turkey would ask them to “fulfil their promises”, the justice minister said.

Ankara has accused both Finland and Sweden of hosting Kurdish militants.

The Nordic states agreed late on Tuesday to “address Turkey’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously”.

Finland and Sweden declared their intention to join the 30-member Western defensive alliance in May, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey initially threatened to veto their application but after four hours of talks at the Nato summit in Madrid the three countries reached a compromise. Nato leaders are expected to officially invite Finland and Sweden to become members before the end of the meeting.

Russia condemned the expansion of Nato as a “strictly destabilising factor”. “The Madrid summit affirms the bloc’s course at aggressive containment of Russia,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

“We will seek the extradition of terrorists,” said Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

He called on Finland to hand over six members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and another six from the movement of exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey also wants 11 PKK members and 10 Gulenists to be extradited from Sweden.

The PKK, formed in the late 1970s, launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984, calling for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. Meanwhile, the Gulenists are blamed by Turkey for a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016.

While the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the EU, US and UK, they do not view the Gulen movement in the same light. Finland and Sweden have so far made no public comments on the Turkish request.

Under Tuesday’s trilateral memorandum, Helsinki and Stockholm agreed to “prevent activities of the PKK” and not support Gulenists. They also promised not to support the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which Ankara insists is an extension of the PKK.

The two countries also pledged to lift their restrictions on selling weapons to Turkey.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said the three countries signed the deal “to extend their full support against threats to each other’s security”, while Swedish PM Magdalena Andersson said it was “a very important step for Nato”.

President Erdogan’s office said it “got what it wanted”. But the deal was condemned by Kurdish activists.

Amineh Kakabaveh, a Swedish lawmaker of Iranian Kurdish descent, said it was a “black day” for Sweden. She argued that Stockholm was simply sacrificing the Kurds.

By joining Nato, Sweden will end over 200 years of non-alignment. Finland adopted neutrality following a bitter defeat by the Soviet Union during World War Two.

Magdalena Andersson looked visibly happy in the Madrid sunshine as she told Swedish Television’s morning show that she’d slept well after the “big day” that saw Turkey finally sanctioning a Nato spot for Sweden and Finland.

It was a marked contrast to the reaction from Amineh Kakabaveh, an independent MP and one of Sweden’s 100,000-strong Kurdish diaspora. She’s become something of a global political celebrity in recent weeks, appearing on international TV channels to argue Sweden shouldn’t make concessions to Turkey, which she’s described as an Islamist dictatorship.

She described Tuesday as “a black day in Swedish political history” and said Kurds were being sacrificed for the sake of Nato membership.

Sweden had previously indicated it would continue to support the Kurdish group YPG, which fights the terrorist group IS in Syria. But the Nato agreement indicates this won’t be the case, since Turkey considers the group’s political arm to be a cover for the militant PKK.

While plenty of Kurds in Sweden back the MP, she has little power. Around 80% of MPs backed Sweden’s Nato application, and with parliament now broken up and an election in September, the prime minister’s Social Democrats no longer need her support.

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Jan 6 Hearings: Ex-aide Paints Devastating Picture of Trump

Max King



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Up until now, the congressional committee investigating the 6 January attack on the Capitol was missing a key piece of the puzzle – the testimony of someone who could offer a first-hand account of the situation in the White House in the hours before and during the attack.

Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, filled in the blanks. And she has painted a devastating picture, including an allegation, which Trump denies, that he tried to grab the steering wheel of the car he was travelling in and wrestled with a Secret Service officer in an attempt to divert his motorcade to the Capitol, where his supporters were gathering.

A threat of violence ignored

Very early in the proceedings, the committee went to lengths to establish how the White House, and the president himself, knew that there was a very real threat of violence on 6 January – and did nothing to stop it.

Ms Hutchinson testified that Mr Meadows told her he thought, days before the attack, that things “might get real, real bad”.

She spoke of how White House officials were warned of the potential for violence. And, in perhaps the most damning testimony so far, she said Donald Trump personally knew that members of the crowd at his morning rally near the White House were armed because they were being turned away by Secret Service officers – and directed them to the Capitol anyway.

“I don’t [expletive] care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,” Ms Hutchinson said she heard the president say. “Let my people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.”

A president enraged

Some of Ms Hutchinson’s most damning testimony came second-hand, however. She recounted how a White House official told her that the president had insisted on travelling to the Capitol after his White House rally – something he said he would do during his speech. When he learned the motorcade was going back to the White House, he attempted to grab the steering wheel and wrestled with a Secret Service officer.

“I’m the [expletive] president,” Trump said, according to Hutchinson. “Take me up to the Capitol now.”

Since Ms Hutchinson’s testimony, a source close to the Secret Service has told CBS News that both the agent and driver travelling in the car with Mr Trump were willing to testify under oath that the former president did not physically attack either of them and never attempted to grab the steering wheel.

Later in the day, Ms Hutchinson recounted hearing Mr Meadows say that, upon learning that rioters were calling for Vice-President Mike Pence to be hanged, Mr Trump expressed approval.

Image source, Getty Images

“He thinks Mike deserves it,” Ms Hutchinson said she overheard her boss say. “He doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong.”

In a trial court, such evidence would be considered hearsay and treated with scepticism. In the hearing room, however, it was explosive – and will be used by the committee to pressure senior Trump officials who have so far refused to testify, like White House top lawyer Pat Cipollone, to come forward and either corroborate or refute her accounts.

“If you heard this testimony today and suddenly you remember things you couldn’t previously recall, or you discover some courage you had hidden away somewhere, our doors remain open,” committee chair Bennie Thompson said at the conclusion of the day’s hearing.

A composed witness

The January 6th committee, with its surprise announcement of a mystery witness and new evidence unearthed, set a glaring spotlight on Ms Hutchinson during her in-person testimony on Tuesday.

Image source, Getty Images

For a 25-year-old who four years ago was a White House college intern, she held up to the pressure remarkably well.

She answered the committee’s questions in a calm, methodical voice, noting how and under what circumstances she gained the information she was recounting. The committee made a point of showing how Ms Hutchinson’s office was just a few doors down from the president’s Oval Office and how she controlled access to Mr Meadows’ office, giving her a prime position with which to witness – and, at times, overhear – conversations between key figures in the run-up to the Capitol attacks.

Her meticulous recollection of events and account suggest she may have kept a record of the events during her time at the White House or, at the very least, has an electronic record of texts and emails that supports her claims.

Donald Trump’s rebuttal

As Ms Hutchinson was giving her at times damning account of the president’s actions before and during the 6 January attack, Mr Trump took to his social media platform and began trying to undercut her claims.

Much of it was typical of the way he has responded to past critics, saying that he hardly knows Ms Hutchinson but hears “very negative” things about her. He called her a phoney and a “leaker” and suggested she was bitter because he didn’t give her a job after leaving the White House.

He went on to deny many of the episodes Ms Hutchinson described and, once again, noted that he said in his rally speech that the crowd should march on the Capitol “peacefully”.

It’s always an open question whether any negative stories of Mr Trump’s behaviour will dent his popularity among his supporters. Tuesday’s testimony, and the five hearings before it, however, may remind some Republicans of the kind of chaos that frequently swirled around the Trump presidency and that, while he had some conservative accomplishments while in office, he also presided over his party losing both chambers of Congress and the White House.

Given that a potential 2024 opponent, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is rising in head-to-head-polls against Mr Trump, these hearings may have caused real damage to the former president’s political power.

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President Biden Urges Petrol Tax ‘holiday’ As Fuel Prices Bite

Max King



Image source, Reuters

US President Joe Biden has called for a three-month suspension of America’s national gasoline tax in response to the country’s soaring energy prices.

The average cost of a gallon of gas, or petrol, is hovering near $5 (£4), up from roughly $3 a year ago.

With national elections for Congress coming in November, Mr Biden is under pressure to respond.

Analysts say that removing the levy would have limited impact on household petrol and diesel costs.

Political support for the gas tax holiday, which would require an act of Congress, is also uncertain, with members of Mr Biden’s own party concerned that the move would primarily benefit oil and gas firms.

The White House acknowledged the criticism, but said policymakers should do what is in their power to try to ease the strain on families.

“A gas tax holiday alone will not, on its own, relieve the run-up in costs that we’ve seen,” the administration said in a statement.

“This unique moment when the war in Ukraine is imposing costs on American families, Congress should do what it can to provide working families breathing room.”

What is the US gas tax?

Currently, the US imposes a tax of roughly 18 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24 cents on diesel, using the money collected to help pay for highway infrastructure.

Eliminating the levy through September, as Mr Biden has proposed, would cost the government an estimated $10bn.

The move is the latest effort from countries around the world to address the soaring energy costs.

Oil prices have surged since last year, as demand outstrips supplies constrained by cuts that many firms made after the pandemic hit in 2020 and prompted demand to crater.

As the war in Ukraine pushes Western countries to shun oil from Russia – a major energy producer – that has also contributed to the crunch.

“Pausing the federal gas tax will certainly provide near-term relief for US drivers, but it won’t solve the root of the issue – the imbalance in supply and demand for petroleum products,” a spokesperson for the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers industry group said.

Image source, Getty Images

It said longer-term policies are needed to boost US energy production.

Mr Biden has already taken steps like releasing unprecedented amounts of oil from national reserves and lifting taxes on imports of solar panels.

As well as suspending the national gasoline tax, Mr Biden is urging similar steps by state governments, which typically impose their own taxes, often higher than the federal government’s.

Some states, including New York, have already suspended those charges.

The president has also called for oil and gas firms to increase their output, intensifying his criticism of the sector in recent weeks.

However, there is little political momentum in the US for funding relief for households through something like the UK’s recently announced windfall tax on energy company profits.

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