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Terror funding charge dropped in plea deal with Palestinian aid worker

Khitam Sa’afin convicted of membership in PFLP but not of funneling money to the terror group, and of leading Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees before it was outlawed

View of the Ofer military court near the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 17, 2017.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
View of the Ofer military court near the West Bank city of Ramallah on August 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After over a year in detention, a Palestinian aid worker was convicted last week under a plea bargain that saw her admit to membership of in terror group but dropped the main charge against her of financing its operations.

Khitam Sa’afin was arrested in November 2020 after Defense Minister Benny Gantz outlawed the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees, along with five other Palestinian aid organizations on suspicion that they were funneling cash to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist terror group blamed for previous attacks on Israelis.

The Ofer military court in the West Bank eventually convicted Sa’afin on February 13 in a plea deal that saw her confess to membership in the PFLP and to being president of the UPWC. She was sentenced to 16 months in prison, minus the time she had already spent in custody. She was also given a five-month suspended sentence and a fine of NIS 1,500 ($464).

The updated charges no longer accused her of being part of a committee of senior PFLP activists overseeing the transfer of funds from their organizations to the terror group from Europe. The original charges included a broad list of other alleged activities Sa’afin engaged in on behalf of the PFLP, as well as tying her to the other five organizations that were accused of fundraising for the group.

Among the evidence brought against Sa’afin was a video clip showing her attending a memorial event for a PFLP member. The video was circulated by the Defense Ministry in 2020 to justify its outlawing of the six aid groups.

Sa’afin’s legal representative Mahmoud Hassan told Haaretz there were thousands of people at the event and that much of the case against his client was based on testimony from two accountants who were fired from another organization, the Union of Health Work Committees, amid suspicions that they embezzled funds.

The two fired employees were also questioned by the police and a readout from their interrogation was in the document that the Shin Bet security service presented to members of the US Congress to justify Gantz’s move against the six Palestinian aid organizations, Haaretz reported.

Khitam Sa'afin is a progressive feminist and civil society leader with an exceptional history of struggle against the…

Posted by ‎Union of Palestinian Women's Committees اتحاد لجان المرأة الفلسطينية‎ on Monday, April 12, 2021

Sa’afin, 60, was first arrested on November 2, 2020, and held in administrative detention without charges until June 2021, when the initial indictment was filed.

Earlier this month, Israel granted early release from prison to a Spanish aid worker who was arrested in April 2020 for working for the Union of Health Work Committees, which Gantz also banned in 2020 from working in the West Bank.

Juana Rashmawi, 63, was sentenced in November 2021 to 13 months in prison after a military court convicted her of working with an organization that it said was funding PFLP. Rashmawi admitted in a plea deal to unknowingly funding the PFLP via her work for a health organization.

The United Nations and European governments that have donated funds to the six groups banned by Gantz have asked to see concrete evidence from Israel of the allegations against them.

The Palestinian organizations — al-Haq, Addameer, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Defense for Children International – Palestine, Bisan, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees — are prominent and well-established.

In late October 2020, Gantz, the defense minister, issued orders that classified all six as terror groups. After an investigation by the Shin Bet, Israeli authorities alleged that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had used the organizations to successfully channel funds from European donors to the terror group.

The PFLP, which avowedly seeks to destroy Israel, has a long history of violent attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. The United States, the European Union, and much of the international community classify it as a terrorist organization.

The Palestinian nonprofits strongly dispute the charges against them, accusing Israel of seeking to crack down on criticism of its policies.

AFP contributed to the report.

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