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Lawyer denies claims against Gazan TIKA employee

Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency [TIKA]
Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency [TIKA]

Lawyer Haleed Zeberqa denied late Tuesday "all the accusations" by Israel against the Gazan representative of a Turkish aid agency arrested last month for alleged links to Hamas.

Muhammad Murtaja was arrested at the Erez checkpoint between Gaza and Israel while traveling to Turkey to receive professional training from his employers, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA).

Details of his arrest had not been disclosed due to a gag order issued by Israeli authorities, but Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency alleged in a statement Tuesday that Murtaja had been planning to gather information for Hamas about rocket-building.

"The investigation showed that Murtaja deceived TIKA by misusing the organization's resources and funds, which were intended for substantial humanitarian projects in the Gaza Strip, by diverting them to Hamas' military wing," Shin Bet asserted.

The agency also accused Murtaja of involvement in other elements of Hamas military activity, including the storage of weapons in his home and the use of funds — intended for impoverished Gazans — to pay Hamas fighters.

The lawyer, speaking to Anadolu Agency, strongly denied the claims.

"All the work of Murtaja were related to humanitarian aid projects. Nothing else," he said.

According to the lawyer, the Israeli authorities "have oppressed many international institutions in recent years which carried out relief works.

"Now, they target TIKA," he claimed.

Despite having obtained permission to enter Israel, Murtaja was taken into custody on Feb. 12 at Israel's Erez border crossing.

Since his arrest, the Turkish Foreign Ministry and Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv have maintained diplomatic efforts with a view to securing his release.

Married with four children, Murtaja has worked for TIKA in Gaza since 2012.

The lawyer said Israel "abuses the Murtaja case as a way of pressure on Turkish authorities".

The next hearing will be held 30 March, he added.

Murtaja's case is not the first time Israel has applied pressure on international aid organizations operating in the Gaza Strip on the grounds they are "aiding and abetting Hamas".

Israeli rights groups, B'tselem, has faced accusations of "treason" for criticizing Israeli rights violations, while activists calling for a boycott of products made on illegal Israeli settlements were recently barred from entering the country.

Last year, Israel arrested Muhammad al-Halabi, the Gazan head of international charity World Vision, on charges similar to those faced by Murtaja.

But an Australian government investigation later found that the funds had not been diverted as had been claimed by Israel, Australia's ABC News reported Tuesday.

The news report quoted World Vision's top lawyer, Tim Costello, as saying Israel had not presented any evidence of its claims and that its own internal investigations had also failed to reveal any proof of the misuse of funding.

Since 2007, the Gaza Strip has suffered under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has deprived residents of basic commodities, including food, fuel, medicine and building supplies.

According to a 2015 World Bank report, the decade-long blockade has cut Gaza's gross domestic product in half and led to one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has described the blockade — first imposed after Hamas swept 2006 Palestinian legislative polls — as "collective punishment".

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