By Ori Lewis
ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) - Israel accused U.S.-based Christian relief group World Vision's Gaza representative on Thursday of funneling millions of dollars in aid money to Hamas, charges that the Islamist militant group denied and the charity voiced scepticism over.
Mohammad El Halabi, World Vision's manager of operations in Gaza, was arrested by Israel on June 15 while crossing the border into the enclave, which is under the de facto rule of Hamas, a group on the Israeli and U.S. terrorism blacklists.
World Vision said it was "shocked" by Israel's allegations and said in a statement that it had regular internal and independent audits and evaluations as well as a broad range of internal controls to ensure aid reached intended beneficiaries.
"Based on the information available to us at this time, we have no reason to believe that the allegations are true. We will carefully review any evidence presented to us and will take appropriate actions based on that evidence," the statement said.
It was not immediately clear if Halabi had been assigned a lawyer or how he might plead in court once formally charged. Israel had previously maintained a gag order on the case.
Briefing reporters on Thursday, a senior Israeli security official said Halabi, who has run the group's Gaza operations since 2010, had been under extended surveillance.
The official said Halabi, a Palestinian, had confessed to siphoning off some $7.2 million a year, about 60 percent of the World Vision's Gaza funding, to pay Hamas fighters, buy arms, pay for its activities and build fortifications.
"Money was used to fund Hamas and pay armed wing fighters, and food and health packs intended for Gaza residents were also given to Hamas operatives, rather than to their intended recipients, the poor and meek of Gaza," the official said.
The Israeli security official said some of the money Halabi was accused of taking had been used to buy arms for insurgents in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, that also borders Israel, and that a Hamas military base was built with $80,000 of the funds.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, speaking in Gaza, said the group had "no connection to (Halabi) and therefore, all Israeli accusations are void and aim to suppress our people". Hamas also denies any links to Sinai insurgents.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland)