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March 21, 2017

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No evidence of diversion of World Vision funds to Hamas, DFAT says

Mohammad El HalabiPHOTO: Mohammad El Halabi is accused of channelling millions to Hamas. (ABC News: Sophie McNeill )

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) says an internal review into World Vision funding in Gaza has uncovered nothing to suggest any diversion of government aid funding to Hamas.

The review was announced last August after World Vision Gaza employee Mohammad El Halabi was arrested and put on trial accused of channelling millions to the militant group.

Israeli officials claimed the humanitarian worker siphoned off government funds and charity donations to build tunnels, buy weapons and pay for the salaries of Hamas militants.

The Australian Government has given more than $3 million to World Vision projects in Gaza in the past three years.

The news DFAT found no evidence of the misuse of World Vision funds comes as Mr Halabi’s trial continues in Israel.

He has rejected a plea deal offered by Israeli authorities and has pleaded not guilty, claiming he is innocent of all charges.

Mr Halabi has accused Israeli authorities of torturing him while in custody.

Several witnesses the prosecution has presented to court have also accused Israeli intelligence officers of torturing them during interrogation.

The NGO has stood behind Mr Halabi, saying he is a trusted employee and that they have also found no evidence yet of the diversion of World Vision funds.

World Vision chief advocate Tim Costello said he was very pleased to hear the results of the review.

“So far, our own ongoing forensic audit has not uncovered any money subverted and to hear DFAT say their investigation hasn’t either is consistent and is very good news,” Mr Costello told ABC News.

Authorities yet to produce evidence backing claims

Despite numerous court hearings in Mr Halabi’s trial, Israeli authorities have not yet produced any evidence to back up the explosive claims made against Mr Halabi by Israeli officials.

“We want to see the evidence,” Mr Costello said.

“He has pleaded not guilty and we want him to receive the full benefit of presumed innocence.”

Mr Costello hopes the Israeli authorities will take notice of DFAT’s findings.

“I think the charges certainly talked about diversion of funds so I think this is relevant,” Mr Costello said.

In January, Israeli prison authorities said Mr Halabi was put in solitary confinement for six days as “punishment” for giving an interview to ABC News without approval.

A spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs told ABC News they would not comment on the findings by DFAT.

DFAT said Australia’s funding to World Vision in the Palestinian territories remained suspended until they considered the outcomes of the court case against Mr Halabi and reviews being undertaken by World Vision.