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Conviction comes as Israel faces outcry over banning 6 NGOs

Spanish-Palestinian woman pleads guilty to raising PFLP funds through charity

Juani Rishmawi admits to defrauding donors on behalf of the terrorist organization for reduced sentence; lawmakers say it’s proof PFLP uses humanitarian groups as fronts

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

Palestinians participate in a rally marking the 52nd anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in Gaza City, December 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinians participate in a rally marking the 52nd anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in Gaza City, December 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

A Spanish-Palestinian woman pleaded guilty in a military court on Wednesday to embezzling funds from a West Bank charity on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group, which Israel recently accused of using six other non-governmental organizations as fronts for its terrorist activities.

Israeli politicians hailed the conviction, believing it justifies a deeply contentious decision by the Defense Ministry and the military to outlaw the six groups, prompting at times harsh international opposition.

Under the deal, Juani Rishmawi admitted to working in the service of a proscribed organization — the PFLP — and illegally bringing money into the West Bank in exchange for a reduced sentence of 13 months in prison and a NIS 50,000 ($16,000) fine. Her sentencing hearing will be held next week.

“According to the facts that she admitted, for years the accused worked to raise money, amounting to millions of shekels from countries in Europe, for the Health Work Committee, which worked on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” the military said.

Rishmawi, 63, was responsible for fundraising for the organization in Europe.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the money was embezzled using forged documents and by defrauding funders, and that it was used “to fund the activities of the Popular Front.”

“PFLP institutions deceived aid organizations in Europe through a number of methods – reporting on fictitious projects, transferring false documents, forging and inflating invoices, diverting tenders, forging documents and bank signatures, reporting inflated salaries, and more,” the Shin Bet security service said after Rishmawi’s arrest earlier this year.

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)

According to the Shin Bet, the money was used to pay the families of slain members of the PFLP, to recruit new operatives, and to spread the group’s messaging throughout the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The military added that Rishmawi raised funds for the Health Work Committee despite suspecting that the money was going toward the PFLP and continued doing so even after “she learned that the organization’s money manager had funded terror attacks against the State of Israel during his tenure.”

According to the left-wing B’Tselem human rights group, Palestinians overwhelmingly plead guilty in military courts due to extremely high conviction rates and lengthy trials in which suspects are anyway kept in jail throughout, which means military prosecutors rarely have to present significant evidence at trial.

“With unbridled cynicism, [the Israeli government] speaks in praise of human rights as they trample them day after day, and hour after hour,” B’Tselem said in response to Rishmawi’s plea bargain.

The conviction came shortly after Israel designated six other Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organizations for similar allegations, which has sparked harsh denunciations from international rights groups and probing questions by foreign governments, including the United States and European allies.

Following the conviction, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel will “continue to act against terrorism anywhere, however it appears.”

His office added that the conviction “proves that the Popular Front uses ‘humanitarian’ organizations to raise terror funds.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, whose office has dealt with much of the criticism toward Israel for the move, called on the international community to “work with Israel in order to prevent terrorist organizations from operating under a civilian guise and to prevent aid money from reaching terrorist organizations.”

Israel has yet to publicly release evidence proving that the organizations acted as fronts for the PFLP, though some individuals working for them have been tied to the terrorist group. A dossier compiled by the Shin Bet about the decision to outlaw the groups indicated that testimony from Rishmawi and another employee of the Health Work Committee, Tayseer Abu Sharbak, who was arrested alongside her, provided some of the basis for the move, despite the fact that neither of them worked for the organizations in question.

The investigation into Rishmawi and the Health Work Committee began during a crackdown on the PFLP after members of the organization conducted a deadly terror attack in the West Bank in 2019, which killed Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb and seriously injured her father and brother.

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