Down a sandy alleyway in a secluded courtyard on a back street in Gaza City, a group of Palestinian children starts singing. They stand in front of a door that's been locked to them since early August. The sign out front says "Children's Clinic" in both English and Arabic. The sign is now peeling away.
Like most Gazan teenagers, the children have already survived three wars, and the clinic used to treat their postwar shock and depression. But it has been shuttered since Israel accused a senior Gaza-based official of the charity that implemented the clinic, World Vision, of diverting millions of dollars of humanitarian assistance from the people of Gaza to the fighters of Hamas.
The group runs the Gaza Strip and is labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
"We were just trying to restore peace and tranquility inside their minds," Muhammad Sultan, who ran the clinic, told NPR in front of its locked door. World Vision has temporarily closed all of its programs in Gaza. "Any loud sound here or there, and everybody used to be terrified. These kids needed such a program."
World Vision, an American multibillion-dollar charity whose operations are international, says the $50 million that Israel's security services accused its Gaza director, Mohamed El-Halabi, of diverting amounts to nearly double its entire Gaza budget for the last decade.
Israeli officials say they do not want Halabi's case to lead donors to halt their humanitarian aid. But the impact of the case — alongside a similar one against a U.N. Development Program engineer, accused by Israel of helping Hamas built a military jetty — has already been felt.
The Australian and German governments froze their donations to World Vision's Gaza programs and the U.N. has urged Israel not to undermine aid agencies. All this has sent deep shivers through the Gaza aid community, whose leaders tell NPR they are worried about reduced donations and increased Israeli security checks.
"We've got to expect Israel, while it continues a perfectly understandable campaign against Hamas, to make sure that in doing so... [aid] agencies are not caught in the crossfire," Robert Piper, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, told NPR.
"We still need the place"
The U.N. estimates 160,000 Gazan children need psychological aid. Sultan says he and his teachers were just a drop in the bucket. But he says through conversation, games and theater performances, the program was effective.
"This led, actually, to [a] big change in their mentality. We managed to see kids who used to suffer bed-wetting become brave to talk to people standing on a stage," he said. "I believe the center managed to take the kids out of their traumatized situation into a better life."
A group of singing girls nominated 15-year-old Samar Zaid to speak to NPR. She said during the 2008 war, her home was hit by an Israeli strike.
"Fear. It was all about fear," she said. "Fear was everywhere, wherever we are. I was always afraid that me, myself or one of my family [would] be hit."
She said the center reduced her fear through simple actions such as facilitating play with her friends.
"This was the only resort for us to have fun, and to play and to meet our friends," she said. "Closing this place down was a problem for us... If someone made a mistake, we shouldn't have to pay for that, it's not our fault... Now we feel really, really down. We still need the place."
Sultan criticized World Vision for closing the center before the charity's own investigations and an ongoing Israeli court case determine whether Halabi is guilty or not. Halabi was arraigned earlier this week.
"This matches what Israel wants," Sultan said, "of putting more pressure on the kids."
Balancing Gaza's recovery with Israel's security
Israel strongly disagrees that it is trying to put pressure on Gaza's neediest.
"A Gaza Strip with a Palestinian population that feels it's going somewhere is less likely to join terror groups," Dore Gold, the director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, told NPR. "We have to find methods to make sure we can have recovery in Gaza, on the one hand, and at the same time protect the security of Israel."
Israel and the United Nations have worked for years on complex restrictions and security checks to control aid delivery to the Gaza Strip. Israel has been trying to prevent Hamas' military wing from exploiting the groups and diverting aid to its campaign of launching rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians, and building tunnels designed to kill or capture Israeli civilians living near the border with Gaza.
"We will not allow international humanitarian organizations to become instruments of Hamas' terror machine," Gold said.
But he said he did not want those warnings to dissuade donors from delivering aid.
"We are interested in everybody maintaining their assistance to Gaza. Period," Gold said. "At the same time, in the future, these [aid] organizations will have to sit down with Israel and we have to compare notes. The more we get a handle on this, the more we work out a system for due diligence, I think we assure the security of the Gaza Strip, of Israel."
A U.N. plea to maintain aid
The U.N.'s Piper calls Gaza aid delivery among the most regulated in the world. He said the U.N. and all aid agencies are committed to ensuring that aid is not diverted to Hamas.
"We are having a hard look at our internal systems, and we are not naïve about the operating environment in which we are doing our work," Piper told NPR.
Of 1.9 million Gazans, Piper says 1.4 million need humanitarian aid, and the United Nations directly helps 1.1 million. He is worried Israel's charges against the two aid workers, from World Vision and UNDP, could exacerbate a large aid funding shortage. As of now, only 40 percent of the pledges made in 2014 to help rebuild Gaza have been delivered. The shortage could be exacerbated, Piper said, if Israel increases already costly security checks on aid groups. He urged Israel not to imperil humanitarian assistance while it tries to prevent aid from being diverted.
"Our counsel to the Israeli foreign ministry in handling these allegations, is to make sure that the information campaign, if you will, which is addressed to Hamas, is done in such a way that really discriminates on its objectives, and is very careful not to undermine the very work of this humanitarian community," Piper said.
Differentiating between Hamas bureaucrats and militants
Preventing Gaza aid from being diverted was difficult even before the allegations against World Vision because Hamas, the elected government, runs Gaza's most basic services.
Khalil Halabi, Mohamed el-Halabi's father, calls the accusations against his son false. He himself was an aid worker for decades, and says aid workers have to work with the Hamas government to get things done.
"During the day, all the people, deal with them. Because the police, from Hamas. Municipality, from Hamas. Hospitals, from Hamas. What can we do?" he told NPR in Gaza City. "I work with them daily to solve the problem. But this is different from military. Military, you could not talk with them."
In other words, Halabi distinguishes between Hamas militants and Hamas bureaucrats.
Piper said that aid organizations in Gaza make a distinction between emergency humanitarian assistance — which goes to everyone without question — and longer-term and larger aid to households or organizations, which is tightly controlled.
"We are focused on getting health care to those who desperately need it," Piper said. "Beyond that, we then start to introduce filters and vetting and so forth to screen who is getting what, and to avoid being seen — or indeed or just actively supporting — an organization or movement that is considered internationally untouchable."