Following up on World Vision's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week in Gaza

In 2014, World Vision (WV) noted with pride on its website that Mohammed Khalil El Halabi had been named a United Nations humanitarian hero for his work leading the international evangelical Christian mega-charity in Gaza, the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory.

A year later, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), a right-leaning Israeli think tank, produced a lengthy white paper on WV's work in Gaza. It asserted that WV promoted "an anti-Israel narrative in order to obscure the role of Hamas in creating a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. By serving as a conduit of misinformation about the Arab-Israel conflict, World Vision increases its income as it assists Hamas in its propaganda war against the Jewish state."

Neither the WV web post or the JPPA report received meaningful news media attention. That's as you might expect. In-house employee praise or white papers by groups with an obvious dog in the fight -- particularly those right-of-center on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- tend to gain little traction with mainstream journalistic professionals.

Here's what does receive attention: Last week, Halabi was charged by Israel with being a Hamas agent who diverted significant WV funds to the Sunni Islamist Palestinian group that the United States and other nations have labeled a terrorist group.

Click here to read how the New York Times handled the story. Click here to see how The Guardian played it.

WV is based in the Seattle area, so let's also see what the hometown newspaper did. Lacking its own international resources, the Seattle Times fell back on the time-honored journalistic slight-of-hand of having a staffer add a local veneer to a rewrite of wire reports. Been there, done that.

There are several journalistic points to be made here. But first a bit more on WV's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week (thanks, Disney.)

The Halabi-Hamas charge -- to which WV responded with shock and incredulousness -- was one of two embarrassing stories about WV that broke last week.

Just days prior to word of Halabi's arrest being announced, the Times ran a first-person piece (a newswriting style now widely employed in the ever-evolving Old Gray Lady) by one of its Jerusalem reporters about WV's penchant for implying in its fundraising that money donated goes directly to helping a particular child.

In actuality, that's not quite how WV works. Which is to say, sad kid faces make for better optics in the charity fundraising letter business than do village wells or plumbing. Oops. (There are, however, Christian ministries that do build direct links between donors and the children that they are "adopting.")

So what journalistic points can be made here? Well, here's one:

I'm critical of some Israeli government policies. But as GetReligion readers should know, I'm solidly within the centrist pro-Israel camp. Still, I'd caution journalists to not uncritically accept the Israeli charges against Halabi.

Just as I'd also caution against accepting uncritically pronouncements made by the Palestinian side.

To be clear, I do not mean to imply that I think Israel's claim is false.

But remember, this incident is one in an ongoing propaganda and military conflict between Israel and Hamas. So as you might expect, the Palestinian side has a mirror-opposite take on this incident. Click here for one such viewpoint.

It's not about which side's version you accept. It's about the journalistic process.

Some more points: Will the Seattle Times or other Washington State media follow up on what for them is a local story? Will the elite international media stay with it?

You know the Israeli media, which went gung-ho over Halabi's arrest, will stay on it. You might follow the Israeli press closely to stay abreast.

The Israeli press is also sure to keep reminding us that all foreign NGOs and United Nations agencies operating in Gaza, and the West Bank, function there only if they politically cooperate with Palestinian officials and employ local Palestinians.

(In that vein, this story about the arrest by Israel of another Gazan Palestinian, a local UN employee, also charged with secretly aiding Hamas broke just as I was editing this post for publication.) 

WV has been tarnished. Australian and German government donations have already been pulled. Could this be the start of a downward slide that ends with WV in serious financial straits? Will other charity groups, Christian and otherwise, also operating in the Palestinian territories suffer via association?

In 2014, United States Aid for International Development (USAID) gave WV more than $85 million in cash and non-cash assistance for its worldwide programming, according to NGO Monitor, another Israel-based, right-of-center organization worth following on this one.

Will this now be called into question? Could WV be dragged into the presidential campaign as a wedge to influence American Jewish voters?

All these points deserve follow up given WV's high profile. Plus, there's this larger narrative into which the WV story fits.

American and European Christian aid organizations have long engaged in their own theological and political competition in the Israel-Palestine context. Some -- broadly speaking, the more liberal groups who frame this as a justice issue and consider Israel the unjust actor -- support the Palestinian side. Others -- again broadly speaking, more conservative groups who profess greater theological kinship with Jews -- support Israel.

In many ways, it's an extension of the culture wars the two wings of American (but not just American) Christianity battle over domestically. You can see real doctrinal differences looming in the background, as well.

For these reasons alone, expect to hear more about WV's woes in the not-too-distant future.

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