Israel's Spin in Its Efforts to Justify Labeling of Palestinian NGOs Terrorist Groups

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
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Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz, in June.
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Last Wednesday, the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry issued a joint and joyous announcement: A plea bargain signed that day at the Ofer military court proved that Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s declaration of six Palestinian civil society NGOs as terror organizations was justified. “The court’s ruling proves that the Popular Front [for the Liberation of Palestine] is operating humanitarian organizations in order to raise money for terrorist activities,” said the announcement.

The ministries referred to a conviction based on a plea bargain, signed earlier by a 63-year-old Spanish citizen named Juana Rashmawi. Rashmawi has been imprisoned for over six months. Before her arrest, she was working as a fundraiser for the Union of Health Work Committees, an organization that was not included in Gantz’s list since it was outlawed a year earlier.

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However, the plea bargain in no way proves that these six organizations are involved with terrorist activities. The amended indictment, to which Rashmawi pleaded guilty, repeatedly states that she did not know that the funds she raised were going to the Popular Front, and that she was unaware of the way the amounts raised were falsely inflated, according to the prosecution. The most that was attributed to her was that she was suspicious of the Union of Health Work Committees that it might be working at the behest of the Popular Front.

But it was not this section of the indictment that was of interest to the ministries. The indictment contains nine background paragraphs that are unrelated to Rashmawi, telling the story of the six civil society organizations that are alleged to be associated with the Popular Front. Rashmawi did not work for these organizations, and it was never argued that she was associated with them. Moreover, since the evidence stage of the trial was never held, the prosecution did not have to prove its claims, including the background sections that tied Rashmawi’s trial to Gantz’s declaration about the six organizations. At Wednesday’s hearing, her lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, emphasized that Rashmawi could not admit to the claims since she was unaware of them.

In fact, the part relating to the six organizations was not included in the original indictment but was only added now, after Gantz’s declaration. The fact that military prosecutors insisted on including the paragraphs dealing with these organizations in the indictment, even though the accused argued that she had no information on this subject, was an early hint that the objective was a public relations stunt, an attempt to show something that would justify Gantz’s declaration to the world. The defense and foreign ministries’ announcement regarding the plea bargain demonstrates this.

To understand the use Israel is trying to make of this plea bargain, agreed to by a woman who worked in one organization, to justify an announcement about other organizations, one must go back in time. In the course of 2020, Israel banned the Palestinian Union of Health Work Committees, claiming that it belonged to the Popular Front. Last May, indictments were filed against four employees of this organization. The indictments charged that invoices and salaries were inflated, with money funneled to the Popular Front. Investigative material was based mainly on the Shin Bet security service’s investigation of two employees who were fired in 2019 after being charged with embezzling funds.

Shortly before those indictments were filed, Israel showed European diplomats a classified Shin Bet document. Even though the indictment only concerned the Union of Health Work Committees, the document discussed the six organizations cited by Gantz. This document was meant to convince the Europeans to stop supporting these organizations financially. These organizations were for years targeted by NGO Monitor, with some of its materials later found in briefings given by the Defense Ministry.

The Shin Bet document presented partial transcripts from police questioning of Health Work Committees’ employees, who repeat what was admitted earlier by the two people questioned by the Shin Bet. This is common practice, meant to repel arguments concerning the manner that confessions were extracted. Indeed, the lawyer of one of the people accused in this case said in court that his client had been subjected to prolonged and extreme interrogation.

Part of the document that was presented to the European diplomats was directed specifically at other organizations. In the section relating to Al-Haq – the best-known human rights organization in the West Bank and a key player in trying to take Israel to the International Court in The Hague, and one of the six organizations banned by Gantz – there is a grotesque quote by a Health Work Committees’ employer, according to which it was forbidden for anyone who is not an activist in the Popular Front to work for the civil society organization. What is this based on? The document does not say.

Since the Shin Bet document did not present convincing evidence regarding these organizations, it had almost no impact on the diplomats who read it. In recent weeks, this document was also shown to U.S. Congress members.

Sources familiar with the investigation of these six organizations told Haaretz that there is solid, intelligence-based evidence against them, but that this evidence is classified. This is the evidence the defense establishment is using to tie the plea bargain with Rashmawi to the six organizations. To this is added a report saying the phones of three members of these organizations contained NSO’s Pegasus spyware, as well as an announcement by the Palestinian foreign ministry that the software is also present on the phones of three senior officials who were collecting complaints against Israel for presentation at The Hague.

As usual, when it comes to Palestinians, Israel shelters behind security arguments to silence any discussion of its resolutions. The gap between the generalized, threatening descriptions from the defense establishment and what we know in practice works as the ultimate silencing tool. The silence of left-wing ministers Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz – after they were exposed to some of the classified material, they would not even say if they were convinced by it or not – is disappointing, to say the least.

For most citizens of this country, the defense establishment’s ruling is the final word, not something one can doubt or demand proof of. Since the organizations Gantz referred to are known and respected by the international community, it seems that in this case, keeping things obscure will not serve Israel well. Meanwhile, tricks such as the one perpetrated by the defense and foreign ministries this week on the back of a Spanish citizen in her sixties, who was tried in a military court, only raise more questions about what really lies behind Gantz’s declaration.

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