Spanish woman admits helping banned Palestinian group

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JERUSALEM – A Spanish woman admitted on Wednesday in a plea deal reached before an Israeli military court that she had collected large sums of money that had been diverted to a banned militant group, the Popular Liberation Front of Palestine.

Israel used the condemnation to prove that it was justified to label six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist groups last month. But the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is a separate group, court documents suggest the woman knew little about the project and was not involved in any PFLP militant activity.

Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, consider the group to be a terrorist organization.

Juana Ruiz Sánchez, a Spanish citizen who lives in the occupied West Bank and is married to a Palestinian, was a long-time employee for Health Work Committees, a Palestinian non-profit group that provides medical services in the occupied West Bank.

According to legal documents obtained by The Associated Press, Ruiz raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the group, part of which was diverted to the PFLP.

But she appeared to have been largely oblivious to her involvement in the PFLP’s purported fundraising program. In one case, for example, he said she raised some $ 4,000 for what she believed to be medical equipment by presenting documents from donors she did not know were fraudulent. The funds were then diverted to the PFLP, according to the document.

“During all this time, I thought I was working for a medical and health organization,” she reportedly told the court. “I’m so sorry, I was just wrong and I want you to take into account that I never meant to do any injustice to anyone.”

But prosecutors noted that she continued her work for the health work committees even after learning that a colleague helped finance an attack and after Israel declared the organization illegal in early 2020.

“In doing so, the accused was working for the organization and thus rendering a service to the PFLP,” the document states.

She was found guilty of “rendering a service to an illegal organization” and of illegally transferring money to the West Bank.

Israeli officials, referring to her by her married name of Juana Rishmawi, said the move marked a victory in their war against the PFLP. Israel has targeted what it says are the group’s efforts to raise funds from Western donors under the guise of humanitarian work.

“The entire international community must work with Israel to prevent terrorist organizations from operating in civilian settings and prevent funds reaching terrorist organizations,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said.

Ruiz’s lawyer, prominent Israeli defense attorney Avigdor Feldman, called the government’s case “very weak”. He said his client, who is in her 60s and has been in jail since April, admitted to laying watered down charges in order to be released.

The conviction includes a 13-month prison sentence and a $ 16,500 fine. But with the credit for the time served and other cuts, she could be released in two weeks, Feldman said.

“This was our main reason for coming to the plea bargain,” he said. The original charges, he said, were “very serious” and could have resulted in years in prison.

“In the end, they only blame her that she should have known that the Popular Front was working behind the organization. That’s all,” he said.

She is due to be sentenced on November 17.

Last month, Israel designated six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist groups, claiming they were linked to the PFLP, a secular left-wing political movement with an armed wing that carried out deadly attacks against Israelis. But Israel has yet to take further action against the groups, which openly operate in the occupied West Bank.

All six groups, some of which have close ties to rights groups in Israel and abroad, deny the claims. They say the terrorist designation is intended to muzzle criticism of Israel’s half-century military occupation of the territories the Palestinians want for their future state.

Workplace health committees were banned earlier and are seen as a test for Israeli efforts against the other six.

A confidential Israeli file detailing alleged links between the groups and the PFLP contains little concrete evidence and relies almost entirely on the interrogations of two former workers on the company health committees.

Ayed Abu Eqtaish, director of the accountability program at Defense for Children International-Palestine, one of the six groups, rejected the plea bargain.

“The decision taken by the Israeli government is political and aims to silence the institutions and prevent them from playing their role in exposing the practices of the occupation in the occupied territories,” he said.

The Spanish government, which provided consular assistance to Ruiz during the trial, said it had controls to prevent aid money from reaching militant groups. There was no immediate reaction to the Spanish Foreign Ministry’s plea negotiation.

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Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.


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