For the past several weeks, World Vision, a multi-billion dollar Christian charity that promotes child welfare in poor countries throughout the world, has been dealing with the fallout of the arrest and indictment of one of its employees, Mohammed El-Halabi. Halabi, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, stands accused of funneling World Vision funds and supplies to the terrorist organization Hamas. He is also accused of scouting out egress points for Hamas terror tunnels into Israel.
The controversy is so serious that World Vision has ceased operations in the Gaza Strip and has laid off 120 employees. Reuters reported the shutdown on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016.
After the allegations were made public on August 4, 2016, officials from World Vision International issued a statement that they had no reason to believe that the charges against Halabi were true.
In subsequent statements, World Vision took a different tact, reporting that its budget in the West Bank was not big enough for Halabi to steal the millions Israel accused him of stealing.
Halabi's defense attorney suggested that his client was a victim, not a conspirator, stating that Hamas had stolen World Vision materials under the threat of force. It's an allegation that would come as a surprise to World Vision donors because if the theft did occur, it was not mentioned in World Vision International's accountability reports that are supposed to inform its donors about what's going on with their contributions.
World Vision's more recent messaging is a bit different. Kevin Jenkins, president of World Vision International, which oversees the operations of WV affiliates in more than 70 countries, recently told AFP that he hopes Halabi will receive a fair and public trial because we want the truth to come out.
According to AFP Jenkings said the allegations against Halabi were so serious that the NGO was hoping for an open trial to learn as many lessons as possible if they were proved correct.
Jenkins oblique admission that maybe Israeli investigators know something about Halabi that World Vision does not is a clear backtrack from previous World Vision assurances that its operations were fully audited by international accounting firms, who apparently found nothing.
It gets more interesting. On August 29, 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that in an interview, Jenkins said a former World Vision employee made an internal complaint of financial impropriety against Mr. Halabi before his detention, but a subsequent internal investigation found no evidence to substantiate the charge. Jenkins' admission leads to more questions about who conducted the investigation and how thorough it was.
Most of the public statements about the controversy have come from World Vision International (WVI). World Vision's affiliate in the United States (WVUSA), which is the source of at least a third of World Vision's total revenue, has been silent about the controversy. Aside from reposting statements from WVI president Kevin Jenkins about the arrest, WVUSA has said very little about Halabi's arrest or the charges against him.
Throughout the controversy, WVI has, with good reason, expressed concerns that the negative publicity will harm its ability to provide services to children in other parts of the world. On this score, it is important to remember that the ultimate responsibility for the theft of World Vision funds and resources lies with Hamas itself, which is already guilty of great crimes against children on both sides of the Gaza Strip's boundary with Israel.
Nevertheless, a large measure of responsibility for the damage to World Vision's reputation lies with the actions of leaders and staffers of the charity itself. These leaders and staffers have some crucial lessons they need to learn and soon if World Vision is to regain the trust of its donors in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
Here are three.
Lesson One: World Vision has a limited reservoir of trust it can use to weather this storm. Previous World Vision staffers have behaved in a manner that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to give World Vision the benefit of the doubt.
One of the worst offenders is Tom Getman, who during the First Intifada, used his position as WV director in Jerusalem to attack the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
For example, at a conference in Seattle in 1998, Getman lambasted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the absence of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Washington Report for Middle East Affairs reported that Getman said it is Netanyahu's intractable short vision' and his practice of calling every act of opposition terrorism' and calling people to the barricades for a vision that is the local common denominator' that makes it hard for Dennis Ross or Madeleine Albright to make any difference. Getman also urged his audience to help by rooting out Zionism in American churches, and to investigate before investing in Israeli organizations or development projects.
In 2001, he submitted written testimony on behalf of a divorced mother charged with abducting her children from their father, in violation of a detailed separation agreement.
According to the Edmonton Journal, the woman took the children from their father in an effort to protect them from terror attacks taking place during the Second Intifada. Getman testified that: Israel is one of the most difficult places in the world today for children because of the significant risk of their suffering serious harm, both physically and psychologically. He added: I believe it would be unwise for Jewish children to return to Israel at this time if they have an alternative option.
This is simply outrageous behavior for an official from a Christian charity to engage in. Getman waged a one-man propaganda war against Israel while working on World Vision's payroll.
Given that World Vision allowed Getman (and others) to participate in the propaganda war against Israel, it's not all that hard to imagine the possibility that the charity's resources were misappropriated in the Gaza Strip.
Lesson Two: If World Vision cannot, or will not, confront Hamas over its crimes against children in the Gaza Strip, the organization really is not living up to its charter as a child-advocacy organization.
Any reasonable observer knows full well that Hamas is a huge enemy to child welfare in the Gaza Strip and Israel.
On four separate occasions over the past decade (2006, 20082009, 2012 and 2014), Hamas initiated wars that it could not win against a country that cannot afford to lose.
During these armed conflicts, Hamas endangered the lives of Palestinians, especially children, by launching rockets from schoolyards and by using hospitals as command centers for its leaders. It has terrorized thousands of Israeli children in these attacks.
Hamas has summoned civilians to the rooftops of buildings after Israel issued a warning that these buildings would soon be under attack..
Furthermore, during the war in 20082009, Hamas diverted food and fuel from their intended recipients as part of its policy of increasing the suffering in the Gaza Strip in order to make Israel look bad. It has used cement and other building materials allowed into the Gaza Stripostensibly for the benefit of Palestinian civiliansin order to construct tunnels that can penetrate Israel and serve as a means to kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians.
Hamas has also tolerated the use of child labor in the construction of smuggling tunnels into Egypt.
Despite all these crimes, World Vision has been, in the main, very reluctant to condemn Hamas' actions. Former World Vision staffer Alex Snary once spoke about the evils of child labor during his tenure as director of the organization's Jerusalem-West Bank and Gaza Office, but did not mention Hamas by name in his talk. And after being roundly condemned for its one-sided condemnations, World Vision International's president condemned Hamas for launching rockets at civilians, but overall, has been quiet about the terror organization's crimes against children.
World Vision has also been very reluctant to name the great enemy of child welfare in Syria Bashar al Assad who has used chemical weapons against civilians on a number of occasions. World Vision has pointed out the atrocities, but has been very reluctant to name the Assad regime as the perpetrator.
Lesson Three: World Vision owes its donors greater transparency over its operations than it has given them.
When the charges against Halabi were made public, World Vision stated that there was not enough money in World Vision's budget for Gaza for him to steal the millions of dollars he was accused of stealing.
Media outlets cooperated with that defense, but as it turns out, it may not be true. NGO Monitor, an Israeli organization that examines the role non-profits have played in the propaganda war against the Jewish state, has looked at the annual reports submitted to the Israeli government by World Vision. Its finds are astounding: There is a surplus of approximately $50 million dollars in World Vision operations in the Israel and the disputed territories for the years 2004 to 2015.
NGO Monitor's report also states that in 2016, the Israeli registrar of Non-Profits served [World Vision] with a notice, warning that it had failed to comply with the transparency regulations regarding the use of its funds, in addition to failing to submit the necessary documentation to the Registrar. It is unknown whether the NGO has yet presented the missing documents to the registrar.
Given the defensive public stance from World Vision International in light of Halabi's arrest, it is clear the organization has a lot of soul-searching to do.