In rush to justify blacklisting groups, Israel makes claims it hasn’t yet proved

Politicians presented the conviction of a Spanish-Palestinian fundraiser as evidence PFLP uses civil rights group to fund its activities, but her guilty plea doesn’t show that

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Palestinian PFLP supporters seen during a rally marking the 52st anniversary of its founding, in the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 14, 2019. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian PFLP supporters seen during a rally marking the 52st anniversary of its founding, in the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 14, 2019. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Israel has been on the defensive for the past month, since Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist entities and alleged that they had served as fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group.

International human rights groups decried the move as an attack on Palestinian civil society, and foreign governments — including those of the United States and European allies — have questioned the decision, asking to see the evidence to support the terrorist designation.

A slideshow prepared by the Shin Bet that was shown to foreign governments, and subsequently leaked to journalists, did not reveal damning information and appeared to be based largely on circumstantial evidence and claims made by members of other organizations. While Israel may possess clear documentation of the links between the six organizations and the PFLP — a group responsible for some of the deadliest terror attacks in Israel’s history — the Shin Bet dossier fell far short of such slam-dunk, unequivocal proof.

On Wednesday night, Israeli politicians and diplomats cited a development they said proved “beyond any shadow of a doubt” that these groups are used as fronts for the PFLP: the conviction that morning of a Spanish-Palestinian woman, Juani Rishmawi, who worked for the Health Work Committee, an organization that raised money fraudulently and that Israel says transferred some of those funds to the PFLP.

Rishmawi was arrested earlier this year, following a two-year crackdown on the PFLP that began after a 2019 bombing of a popular West Bank spring that was carried out by the group. The attack killed Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb and seriously injured her father and brother as they were hiking there.

Wednesday’s verdict “proves that the Popular Front uses ‘humanitarian’ organizations to raise terror funds,” Gantz’s office said in a statement.

“Today, a Palestinian with Spanish citizenship admitted that she fundraised on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) through one of its humanitarian organizations. She further detailed that the six organizations designated as terror organizations deceived and misled countries and international organizations as they collected funds, which were then used to finance terror. This admission proves, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the PFLP and these humanitarian organizations are inseparable,” Israeli Ambassador to the US and the United Nations Gilad Erdan declared in a statement.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan addresses the Security Council on October 19, 2021. (Courtesy)

Only that’s not what she admitted to.

Rishmawi’s plea deal made no reference whatsoever to the six outlawed organizations, though the matter was raised by the military prosecutor who included it as background information. She explicitly stated that she did not know she was fundraising for the PFLP and that she was unaware that the money was being raised fraudulently and how it was being raised fraudulently. She also said that she “renounced her activities” when she learned that someone from the HWC had given money to the PFLP that was used to carry out a terror attack, though she did nevertheless stay on at the organization, as the military prosecutor put it during the hearing on Wednesday.

As a result, her guilty plea included no evidence regarding the transfer of funds to the PFLP or the illegality of the fundraising. (Israel maintains that the HWC defrauded donors with counterfeited documents and inflated cost estimates for projects in order to transfer the surplus to the terror group.) Instead, her testimony is far more modest and technical.

Rishmawi admitted only to working for the HWC, which had already been outlawed by the military from operating in the West Bank in 2020, and bringing money into the West Bank on its behalf.

In exchange for her guilty plea, Rishmawi will serve a reduced sentence of 13 months in prison and pay a fine of NIS 50,000 ($16,000), though this will be decided finally at a sentencing hearing next week.

It is noteworthy that Palestinian defendants in Israeli military courts overwhelmingly accept plea deals, as conviction rates are exceedingly high and judges typically require suspects to remain in prison for the duration of their often-lengthy trial. This means a defendant can remain incarcerated for a longer time in order to prove their innocence than they would by pleading guilty and getting released with a short sentence.

Photos released on May 6, 2021, showing, from left, Juani Rishmawi, Amro Hamouda, Said Abdat and Tayseer Abu Sharbak, who are suspected of stealing funds from European countries for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group. (Shin Bet)

Several other HWC employees are still on trial on charges that more specifically deal with the alleged fraud by the organization and its financial support for the PFLP. But these allegations about HWC and its relationship with the PFLP were out of the purview of Rishmawi’s case and were left as unproven allegations by the prosecution, not something demonstrated and verified in a military court.

“The whole time, I thought I was working for a health organization, a medical organization, with lots of health and medical projects and programs, and I am very sorry. I just made a mistake and I want you to take into consideration that I never meant to do any harm to anyone,” Rishmawi said in a statement in the hearing.

It is already evident that Israel’s allegations against the six terror-designated organizations — Al-Haq, Addameer, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees — are not without foundation. The groups had known ties to the PFLP. The Union of Agricultural Work Committees, for instance, employed two members of the PFLP cell believed to have been behind the 2019 bombing that killed Rina Shnerb, including its alleged leader, Samer Arbid.

However, Israel has yet to release to the public the hard evidence that would take these allegations beyond guilt by association and via the actions of individuals, and into the realm of clear, organization-wide support for terrorism — activities that would justify the designation.

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