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EXCLUSIVE: Offices Of Major Christian Charity Searched By Israeli Authorities After Staffer Detained

The sign for the headquarters of the World Vision international humanitarian group in 2010. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN
The sign for the headquarters of the World Vision international humanitarian group in 2010. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

The Israel-Palestine offices of the world’s largest evangelical Christian charity have been searched and a Gaza-based staffer has been detained for more than 40 days without evidence or trial, raising questions about the Israeli government’s use of “administrative detention.”

World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world, has operated largely without controversy in the Israel-Palestine region for more than 40 years according to its website, which says its staff works in “Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza serving the most poor and marginalized.” But ThinkProgress has learned that one of its Gaza-based employees, Mohammad El Halabi, was detained while working in Gaza, and that the group’s offices were searched or raided in recent weeks by authorities.

“There have been issues of that nature.”

World Vision’s East Jerusalem office declined to give details about the ongoing controversy, but confirmed that one of its staff members has been detained by the Israeli government. The office released a statement in June saying they were “not aware of his whereabouts and of what (if anything) [El Halabi] is being accused,” and a tweet on June 30 by United Nations Assistant Secretary General Robert Piper dates his detention — which has been repeatedly extended — at over 40 days.

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“We will continue to reach out to the relevant authorities including calling on Israeli authorities to release Mohammad or allow him access to legal support,” read another statement, posted by the East Jerusalem office on June 27. “We also call on authorities to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and proceed fairly and objectively on the presumption of innocence.”

When asked if their offices have been searched or raided by police, staffer Simon Manning replied, “There have been issues of that nature.”

ThinkProgress also reached out to World Vision’s international office, which issued the following statement via email.

“On June 15th, 2016, Mohammad El Halabi, the manager of operations for World Vision in Gaza, was detained on his way home from routine meetings. A few weeks later on July 12th, our World Vision Office in Jerusalem was subject to a search by the Israeli Security Agency and police in relation to the current investigation of Mohammad El Halabi. We continue to push for fair legal representation of Mohammad, and for his release as soon as possible.”

The duration and scope of the search remains unclear, as is whether authorities plan additional raids.

Originally founded in 1950 as a service organization to assist missionaries, World Vision eventually expanded its work to include emergency relief, health care, educational services, human rights advocacy, and economic development. The Monrovia, California based group now operates in more than 90 countries, boasting roughly 50,000 staff and volunteers paid for by hundreds of millions of dollars in donations — much of which is provided by evangelical Christians.

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The group’s humanitarian focus sometimes leads to disagreements with governments, but the imprisonment of a staffer is a new challenge for World Vision’s Israel-Palestine program. Detentions and raids are relatively common in Israel, where the government is allowed to apprehend individuals purely by administrative order, without requiring a formal indictment or trial. The practice, known as “administrative detention,” is often used to target Palestinian denizens of the West Best and Gaza, and has been widely opposed by international human rights advocates.

According to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Israel Prison Service facilities were holding 692 Palestinians in administrative detention — including 2 women and 13 minors — as of April 2016.

Although rare, the Israeli government has also used the practice to detain Israeli citizens, such as when authorities rounded up members of an extremist “Jewish terrorist network” in the West Bank earlier this year.

The detention of a World Vision employee and subsequent raids potentially complicates the historically strong relationship between Israel and evangelical Christians in the United States. For decades, right-wing Christians have run large pro-Israel advocacy organizations in the United States and helped fund controversial Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Although the connection was forged on theological grounds, it has often strayed into the political realm: conservative religious candidates in the United States such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee regularly hold political fundraisers in Israel.