Israel boasts new ‘proof’ of NGO terror ties – by getting the facts wrong

Juana Ruiz Rishmawi being escorted by Israeli guards to the military court in Ofer Military Prison (Oren Ziv)

Oren Ziv 

+972 Magazine  /  November 11, 2021

Israel celebrated the conviction of Juana Ruiz Rishmawi as evidence linking Palestinian rights groups to ‘terrorists.’ That’s not exactly what happened.

On Wednesday evening, the Israeli government excitedly declared that they had found new evidence to justify their outlawing of six Palestinian human rights groups as “terrorist organizations” last month. They didn’t seem to think that anyone would run a fact check of their claims — or that anyone would witness their “evidence” in person.

Earlier that day on Nov. 10, an Israeli military court convicted Juana Ruiz Rishmawi, a 62-year-old Spanish citizen, of providing services to the Health Work Committees (HWC), deemed by Israel an unauthorized organization. According to the indictment, some of the money Rishmawi raised for the organization was then transferred to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) — which is deemed a terrorist group by Israel, the United States, and the European Union — without her knowledge. Rishmawi is slated to be sentenced next week.

Israel’s Foreign and Defense Ministries celebrated the conviction, tying Ruiz Rishmawi to the case it has been building against the six Palestinian civil society groups outlawed in late October. According to a joint press release by the two ministries, Rishwami’s conviction provided “further proof” that the six NGOs in question actively support the PFLP.

“This admission of guilt is additional proof that a cynical, murderous terrorist organization established a network of lies and deception that uses the disguise of ‘humanitarian organizations’ and ‘human rights organizations’ as a conduit for the flow of funds,” said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. “We will continue to respect human rights and the activities of human rights organizations — we will continue to act against terrorism wherever and in whatever form it may take,” added Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

+972 Magazine was present at Rishmawi’s military court hearing in Ofer Military Prison, and reviewed the final indictment against her. The Israeli government’s account of the case is a far cry from the truth.

What the plea bargain actually said

The Health Work Committees, where Ruiz Rishmawi had been employed, was not one of the six organizations declared as terrorist groups by the Defense Ministry last month. The organization, which provides health and medical services to Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, had already been outlawed in early 2020, after one of its workers was suspected of involvement in the murder of a 17-year-old Israeli.

Following the attack, Israeli authorities arrested and interrogated a number of HWC’s employees. Much of those interrogations served as a basis for the Defense Ministry’s order against the six Palestinian groups, as well as for a secret Shin Bet dossier sent to European and American lawmakers as proof of organizational ties to terrorism. However, an investigation by +972 Magazine, Local Call, and The Intercept revealed that the dossier did not include any real evidence of foul play.

Israel claims Rishmawi had deceived the organization’s European donors in order to cover up money transfers to the PFLP. Her original indictment, however, included far more serious allegations, including membership and participation in activities of a proscribed organization, as well as fraud. None of these additional accusations remained in the final charge sheet.

The Foreign and Defense Ministries claim Ruiz Rishmawi “served as a fundraiser” for the PFLP. But according to the plea bargain, Ruiz Rishmawi said she had only “suspected that the organization was acting on behalf of the PFLP,” yet continued to work with the group. The plea bargain also makes clear that while she agreed to say that some of the funds she had raised allegedly went toward PFLP activities, this took place without her knowledge.

In other words, the Israeli government’s accusation that the PFLP used Ruiz Rishmawi for fundraising purposes is not just factually incorrect — it does not appear in the final indictment at all.

So why are Lapid and Gantz tying Ruiz Rishmawi’s story to that of the six newly targeted organizations, where she had never even worked?

The answer can be found in the “background” section of the indictment, where the prosecution provides context for its case and the events that led up to the indictment itself. In Ruiz Rishmawi’s case, the prosecution chose to include unusually extensive background information — including Israel’s claims against the six Palestinian organizations and their alleged affiliation with the PFLP — in order to ostensibly strengthen Israel’s case against them.

Typically in legal proceedings that result in conviction, either the prosecution is able to definitively prove the claims laid out in the indictment, or the defendant pleads guilty. In cases like Ruiz Rishmawi’s, in which she was served with an amended indictment as part of a plea bargain, the defendant must confirm that every single thing written in the indictment is true and to openly admit to the allegations.

During her hearing on Wednesday, however, Ruiz Rishmawi’s attorney Avigdor Feldman noted that she could not confirm the details that were included in the background section, since she has no knowledge of whether the six organizations were tied to PFLP activities, nor has information on internal PFLP operations. In the courtroom, Ruiz Rishmawi, who was aided by a simultaneous Spanish translator, appeared visibly upset by the idea that she would have to confirm those details.

Moreover, while Lapid and Gantz took the indictment’s background section as proof of their claims against the six NGOs, the military prosecutor himself told the courtroom that the details laid out in that section are not attributed to the defendant.

The odds under military rule

Missing from the government’s narrative, of course, is the context in which Ruiz Rishmawi’s case is unfolding. Israel’s military court system, which operates as a central mechanism of control over occupied Palestinians, notoriously has a conviction rate of about 99 percent, dealing with cases that range from militant activities to peaceful protests to arbitrary detention.

In the face of these odds, it is clear why defendants like Ruiz Rishmawi would prefer to sign plea deals in an attempt to avoid imprisonment or receive a lessened sentence. These deals are commonplace both in Israeli civilian and military courts, yet Ruiz Rishmawi’s case has significant international ramifications, due both to her Spanish citizenship and her work with a foreign-funded NGO.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Gantz and Lapid’s misleading allegations is that, had Ruiz Rishmawi’s case gone to a full trial, all the claims in the indictment’s background section would have had to be presented and argued before the court. Even in a military court in the occupied West Bank, the prosecution would be forced to present documents, call witnesses, and take part in a cross examination regarding these claims — even when the end result is almost certain. In a plea bargain of this kind, however, the military court can simply approve the state prosecutor’s claims.

This basically allows Israeli officials to exploit Ruiz Rishmawi’s conviction — backed by the court’s obedient approval — and recycle their baseless claims against Palestinian human rights groups, pretending they have real facts on their side.

Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, a founding member of the Activestills photography collective, and a staff writer for Local Call