Senator Anne Urquhart – spoke of the ongoing ordeal of Mohammed El Halabi and condemned the unfair nature of Israel’s court system

photo of Senator Anne Urquhart
November 30, 2021

It was nearly six years ago when his case made headlines, when this man was accused of funnelling Australian aid money to Hamas. However, despite a DFAT investigation, independent World Vision investigations by Deloitte and over 165 Israeli court hearings, no credible evidence has been presented to back up these allegations.

Full speech

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (20:23): Last week there was a parliamentary event regarding the imprisonment and trial of the World Vision manager in Gaza, Mohammad El Halabi. It was nearly six years ago when his case made headlines, when this man was accused of funnelling Australian aid money to Hamas. However, despite a DFAT investigation, independent World Vision investigations by Deloitte and over 165 Israeli court hearings, no credible evidence has been presented to back up these allegations. But this 41-year-old father of five remains in an Israeli jail, still awaiting an outcome for his trial, which has been in the final stages for nearly a year.

Last month Senator Wong asked questions of the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the status of his case. However, it seems that the government have stopped paying attention. This is despite DFAT initially sending observers along to the trial of Mr El Halabi Australian embassy staff who told reporters at the time: ‘The Australian government maintains an interest in the outcome of the case.’ But now the government have walked away and washed their hands of this case. This is of deep concern, as this man continues to languish in jail with Israel accusing him of taking our money and funnelling it to Hamas.

The event in the Australian parliament last week heard powerful words from human rights experts as well as from former World Vision Australia boss Tim Costello and from Mohammad’s father. Reverend Tim Costello and former ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill both talked about how this case haunted them, as it was such a blatant and transparent injustice. Mr El Halabi’s former manager in World Vision, Connie Lenneberg, indicated that Mohammad El Halabi was assiduously neutral and independent, and clearly not associated with any political party. She said that he was effective in a complex environment, and she saw evidence of him skilfully implementing the farming and trauma support programs that World Vision was tasking him with delivering. Connie Lenneberg shared how the Deloitte investigation commissioned by World Vision showed that Mohammad was proactive in minimising any risk of misappropriation of funds. She said the only evidence presented in the court case against Mr El Halabi was the testimony of an informant inside the jail, with the evidence of what the informant said being vastly contested. While World Vision offices were raided at the time by heavily armed security, with copious amounts of material confiscated, not one skerrick of evidence from this material has been used in the court proceedings.

Sophie McNeill was reporting for the ABC in 2017 in the early phases of Mohammad El Halabi’s court process. She told of how, when she arrived in court in January 2017, she was able to film Mohammad El Halabi in court—the first contact he’d had with outsiders since his arrest. She says: ‘He looked straight into the lens and said, “They tortured me.”‘ He was subsequently placed in solitary confinement by Israeli authorities for giving an unauthorised interview. In the same hearings, a judge said to Mohammad that he had little chance of being found not guilty, stating: ‘You’ve read the numbers and the statistics. You know how these cases are handled.’ The numbers that he was referring to was the conviction rate for Palestinians in the Israeli court system, which is about 99 per cent. Most Palestinians accept a plea bargain because they know their chances of a fair trial are almost nothing. In what court system does a process begin with a judge saying: ‘You have little chance of being found innocent’? Where is the basic presumption of innocence?

Sophie McNeill, who now works with Human Rights Watch, says that Mohammad is charting a new course by refusing to plead guilty and instead insisting Israel present evidence. He is refusing the attempts to undermine not only his own integrity but also that of World Vision by refusing to accept a plea deal—a deal under which he’d be free by now, if he had accepted it. Sophie also reminded us of those comments made last November by the UN human rights experts with regard to Mohammad’s case. They said Mr El Habibi’s arrest, interrogation and trial ‘is not worthy of a democratic state’, and that Israeli authorities ‘must grant him the full rights of a fair trial, or else release him unconditionally’. What is happening to Mr El Halabi bears no relation to the trial standards we expect from democracies. It is also part of a pattern where Israel uses secret evidence to indefinitely detain hundreds of Palestinians. Human Rights Watch says:

The decades-long failure of the international community to challenge grave Israeli human rights abuses and impose meaningful consequences for them has emboldened Israeli authorities to act in this brazen manner.

This includes labelling a man like Mr El Halabi a terrorist and providing absolutely no evidence to back up their accusations. e have recently seen them use the same tactics with civil society organisations in the West Bank, with six of the most respected Palestinian NGOs now officially classified as terrorist organisations. Their staff are at risk of arrest and imprisonment by Israeli authorities. Amnesty International also provided a range of grave concerns about Mr El Halabi’s case, emphasising that the allegations against Mr El Halabi are extremely serious and it is therefore crucial that his rights are fully respected and that his trial is fair and transparent.

I want to finish with the words of Khalil, Mohammed El Halabi’s father, a man who worked for the UN himself for 42 years, including in senior roles. He spoke of the deep grief of the whole community of having someone so committed to their humanitarian work suddenly arrested and jailed for years. He reminded us that Mohammad’s son was only a few months old when he was arrested. That child is now five years old and would not even recognise his own father today. Khalil says, ‘This injustice that Mohammed is being subjected to isn’t the ideal way for building peace between the Palestinian and the Israeli people.’ I echo Mr Halabi Sr’s comments.

If Australia is truly committed to a just peace between Israel and Palestine then we need to ensure that the basics of the rule of law are followed, including the basic rights of Palestinians to a fair trial, and for humanitarian work not to be criminalised.

Link to parliamentary Hansard