The decision this month by an Israeli judge in the Beer Sheva Court caught advocate Maher Hanna off guard. And Hanna, a member of the Israel Bar Association, had already encountered the most bizarre case of his career as he attempted to have his client, Mohammed El-Halabi, released.
El-Halabi, humanitarian organization World Vision’s former head of operations in Gaza, has been in an Israeli jail since June 2016. He was arrested on his way back from Jerusalem and stands accused of masterminding a financial conspiracy to divert millions of dollars earmarked for humanitarian work to organizations Israel authorities have labeled terrorist groups.
The Israeli media reported an astronomical figure of $50 million for the value of the alleged fraud. This far exceeds the entire budget of the US-based Christian organization. In fact, World Vision and its Australian donors conducted an independent, high-level forensic audit of all the accounts of their Gaza operations and found no evidence of wrongdoing by El-Halabi. His maximum personal spending limit was $300, while the financial ceiling for his entire office was a mere $15,000.
Since his arrest, and reported torture for more than 50 days, Israeli authorities have repeatedly offered to release him if he accepts a plea bargain in which he admits, well, almost anything, just to cover up for the gross mistake that was made in arresting him. He has refused, saying he will not admit to a crime he did not commit.
Israel’s attempts to hide its actions behind a veneer of just laws have been totally exposed for what they are: Instruments of oppression and discrimination
The case has been bizarre from day one, including secret evidence and irregularities surrounding what the defense lawyer was allowed to see and do. It culminated last summer with the Israeli judge ordering Hanna to type his closing argument into the computer of the Israeli prosecutor, and refused to give him a copy of it.
Hanna finalized his argument in September in accordance with the unusual demands of the court. A ruling has yet to be made and the Israeli high court has ordered the Beersheba court to make a decision by Jan. 24. Bail has been repeatedly refused on the grounds that El-Halabi is accused of treason.
The most recent shock to Hanna in the case was an order by the judge, on Jan. 5, that he must reduce his 386-page closing argument to 100 pages. And that he can do so only when the Israeli prosecutor allows him to access to the laptop computer on which he was forced to type the original argument.
As bizarre as that case is, another judicial travesty also emerged in the first few days of 2022 when an Israeli court ordered the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to pay $13 million in fines to the Jewish National Fund over a 20-year-old case involving the expiration of a lease on land granted by the church to Israeli builders in the 1950s. The case arose when Jewish Israeli criminals tricked both the church and the JNF over an extension of the lease.
The fraudsters were caught, convicted and jailed but now the courts have ordered the church to pay a huge fine for a crime it did not commit.
These two cases were foreshadowed by the continuing Israeli policy of administrative detention, under which about 450 Palestinians are being held without charge or trial. Some, such as Hisham Abu Hawash, have protested against their detention by going on a hunger strike.
The policy of administrative detention was inherited by Israel authorities from the previous British government which, toward the end of the Second World War, had passed an emergency law allowing the detention of suspects without charge or trial. The power is supposed to be used only in rare and exceptional circumstances, under close supervision and with restrictions to ensure that suspects’ rights are not abused.
But under Israeli government rule it has become a form of political punishment used against Palestinians. The frequent cases have become so embarrassing that Israel’s leading independent daily newspaper, Haaretz, has called on the Israeli government to abandon the draconian law and either charge people and present the evidence against them or set them free.
The cases I have mentioned will not be new to those who follow Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. They are a damning indictment of the total deterioration of Israel’s judicial system, which has been hijacked completely by the Israeli security and intelligence services and has become an instrument of right-wing Israeli governments.
Western democracies have for a long time referred to the democratic values of justice and the rule of law they share with Israel. If the above cases are any indication, such a claim must be reviewed.
Israel’s attempts to hide its actions behind a veneer of just laws have been totally exposed for what they are: Instruments of oppression and discrimination.
When Israeli and international human rights organizations describe an apartheid regime that exists for the people living between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean, the corrupt Israeli legal system is a reflection of this system of discrimination.
Crimes of apartheid have been declared war crimes. Will the international community therefore address Israel’s continued war crimes, including the discriminatory policies of its judicial system?
• Daoud Kuttab