Will the Australian election see an end to the great Australian silence on Palestine?
The logistics of colonialism. The caged tunnel is the access point for people going between Gaza and Israel. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

It’s one of the longest trials of a Palestinian in Israeli history with no end in sight. Israel charged a Gaza-based, World Vision Australia employee, Mohammed El Halabi, in 2016 with illegally diverting millions of dollars of aid money to Hamas. Six years on, Halabi remains in detention without any conviction. 

“It makes a mockery of due process and the most basic fair trial notions to hold someone for nearly six years in pretrial detention based largely on secret evidence,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

World Vision is a Christian charity that works globally to alleviate injustice and poverty. 

The Australian government has chosen to take sides in the case, believing the Israeli government’s perspective and doing nothing to advocate for Halabi, despite no evidence to support this position. It goes to the heart of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s worldview that Australia should remain a “staunch friend” of the Jewish state (he said this recently after Amnesty International released a report accusing Israel of practising apartheid). 

Mohammed El Halabi was World Vision Australia’s area development programme manager in Gaza, Palestine. He has been held in custody by Israeli occupation authorities since June 2016 on unproven charges of diverting $43-million to the military arm of the Palestinian Hamas government. (Photo: APA)

The upcoming Australian Federal election, with the prospect of the opposition Labor Party taking office, offers the chance of a reset in the country’s relations with both Israel and Palestine. The ALP has a long history of strong support for the Jewish state but the last decade has seen a gradual recalibration towards a slightly more critical stance. 

Labor has pledged to recognise Palestine if it wins office on 21 May. However, what that means in practice is unclear given both governments that nominally rule over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas (aside from Israel that exercises control over the entire territory), are dictatorships.

When answering questions for The Australian Jewish News in May this year, Labor leader Anthony Albanese was cautious in his comments, opposed the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] pro-Palestinian activism strategy, and pledged commitment to the two-state solution. 

Australian aid to Palestine has fallen greatly under the Coalition government, partly due to successive Liberal prime ministers believing false allegations of mismanagement and illegality by Palestinians. Australia remained silent when Israel falsely declared six leading Palestinian NGOs as “terrorist organisations” in late 2021. Australia remains one of the most uncritical,pro-Israel votes at every United Nations vote on the conflict alongside the United States, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and a handful of other US client states. 

The Halabi trial has dragged on without any proof that the Palestinian actually did anything wrong. As soon as Israel charged him, however, the Australian government, having given World Vision Australia $5 million for its work backing agricultural projects and child-friendly areas for traumatised children over years in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, immediately suspended its support. 

Australia’s most belligerent pro-Israel lobby, the Australian/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), was quick to believe the Israeli allegations. The Israeli judge initially told Halabi that he was almost guaranteed of being found guilty. 

By 2017, however, both the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and World Vision Australia had found no evidence that Halabi was guilty of any crimes. Nonetheless, DFAT did not resume its funding to these programs. World Vision suspended operations in Gaza after the charges were laid and has never returned because the case is unresolved. Even if Halabi is eventually acquitted, some NGOs may be reluctant to operate there because they also fear being accused of supporting terrorism. 

A statue in Gaza in remembrance of Hamas ‘martyrs’ who have died in the struggle for Palestinian independence. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

A World Vision spokesperson in Canada recently told the Associated Press that, “We haven’t been able to respond to major needs in Gaza, and that’s where some of the world’s most vulnerable children are.”  

Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, had long wanted to nail an international NGO with direct ties to Hamas, aiming to prove that such organisations were helping support the Islamist regime. In late 2018, Israeli forces were caught in Gaza impersonating aid workers, in a spying operation, an act that endangered all foreigners working there. 

During my many visits to Gaza over the last decade and a half, I’ve seen local and international NGOs playing a crucial role in supporting the more than two million residents who face unimaginable challenges over food, shelter and safety. 

Today, Israel continues to prosecute Halabi despite his denials of wrongdoing. He has refused to take a plea deal, accuses Israel of torturing him in prison, has pled not guilty and no evidence has ever been shown publicly that supports the Israeli claims.  I communicated with him via his lawyer in 2019 and he told me that his health had suffered greatly after years behind bars. 

A Palestinian family enjoying a meal by torchlight during the regular blackouts caused by inadequate Israeli power services in Israeli-occupied Gaza, Palestine. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

Halabi’s Jerusalem-based lawyer, Maher Hanna, told me that Halabi had been pressured by Israeli officials to admit guilt a long time ago but he had refused, saying that he was innocent. Hanna petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court over the slow pace of the trial and urged Halabi to be transferred to house arrest in Haifa.

This was refused because the Israeli prosecutor claimed that Halabi was too dangerous. Hanna said that he had never seen another case like this in Israel with such secrecy. Halabi remains incarcerated, though there are now new indications that a verdict may be delivered in June.

Another Australian aid organisation, Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA, was also falsely smeared by Israel supporters in 2018 for backing terrorism.

Labor’s Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong told me in 2019 that if her party won government that year it would increase aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) by $20 million. The US cut all funding to UNRWA in 2018, affecting millions of Palestinians under occupation (though the Biden administration resumed part of the funding in 2021).

Although Wong wouldn’t commit in 2019 to supporting programs run by World Vision Australia, she said that aid was “vital to the work of countering extremism and promoting peace in the Middle East.” The money would have “appropriate oversights to ensure the funding is being used as intended, to directly support development programs for the Palestinian people.” 

A Mediterranean sunset over the beautiful beaches on the Gaza coastline. The beach is one of the only truly open spaces where families can breathe, providing a rare vista without walls or guard towers, in Israeli-occupied Palestine. (Photo: Antony Loewenstein)

The Labor Party has pledged to increase aid to the Pacific. Wong said recently that, “it would restore Australia’s place as first partner of choice for our Pacific family”. It’s a curious and contradictory position because the ALP backs “offshore processing” for refugees, a policy that involves paying poor Pacific nations such as Nauru to warehouse new arrivals that Australia doesn’t want. 

Labor has also said nothing about ending or at least curtailing its ubiquitous spying on our Pacific neighbours. Wong ignored multiple attempts to contact her this month for comment about Australian foreign affairs policies. 

The Middle East has been almost completely absent from the 2022 Federal election campaigns but advocates are pushing for change. On the pro-Zionist side, AIJAC warned voters that the Greens were pushing “extremism”. The hard right, pro-settler Australian Jewish Association has received huge amounts of coverage in the mainstream media despite it being a completelyunrepresentative body. 

Meanwhile, the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network (APAN) promoted the results of a national YouGov poll that showed most Australians believed that Israel should end its occupation of Palestine. 

The Israeli government is committed to endless occupation of Palestine and yet Australia’s major political parties still speak in the language of a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution. That option is over due to never-ending Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’ll take a brave Western political party to acknowledge this fact instead of indulging Israeli apartheid due to perceived historical responsibilities. 

Antony Loewenstein

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN is an independent journalist, author and film-maker who has written for the Guardian, New York Times and many others. He is an editor and cofounder of DECLASSIFIED AUSTRALIA. His latest book is The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports The Technology Of Occupation Around The World. View all posts by