Second IDF court ruling undermines gov’t campaign against Palestinian NGOs

Sources: Plea deal does not invalidate the broader terror narrative.

The IDF military court in the Kirya military headquarters (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
The IDF military court in the Kirya military headquarters
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

For the second time, the Judea Military Court has issued a ruling nominally convicting a Palestinian of terrorist activities, but also undermining the government’s broader October declaration of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist groups.

On February 13, Palestinian activist Khatam Saafin was convicted in a plea bargain for membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist group, after earlier more severe charges were dropped.

Originally, the IDF Prosecution had accused her of being part of the leadership of a group of dual-hat actors performing both humanitarian work and secretly siphoning off funds to the PFLP.

Sources disputed the idea that the plea deal would undermine the government's broader narrative.

She was sentenced to 16 months in prison following an indictment filed in June 2021. She is expected to be released in May given that she has been detained since November 2020.

 Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) celebrate the decision of the Palestinian Authority's High Court, which ordered the release on Monday their leader Ahmed Sa'adat, out side the court in Gaza Strip June 3, 2002. (credit:  REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah AJ/CRB) Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) celebrate the decision of the Palestinian Authority's High Court, which ordered the release on Monday their leader Ahmed Sa'adat, out side the court in Gaza Strip June 3, 2002. (credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah AJ/CRB)

Saafin was initially placed in administrative detention, which was extended three times.

She had been director-general of the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees (UPWC), one of the six NGOs declared to be terrorist groups, and the original indictment included charges that this group was a money-laundering front for the PFLP.

The original indictment had also given examples of specific actions that Saafin had undertaken to facilitate the scheme in which five of the groups allegedly worked with another group, the Union of Health Work Committees (UHWC), to clandestinely transfer some humanitarian funds to the PFLP.

The charges of having a leading role, of raising funds for terrorism and of being connected to a broader scheme with the five other groups and the PFLP were all dropped.

Sources have indicated that reasons for the IDF to have agreed to a plea deal including dropping some of the charges related to Saafin's elderly status, at age 60, as well as her prior clean record.

In addition, sources said that dropping mentioning that she had a leading role and other elements did not reflect a lack of belief that those charges were true as much as it reflected that in any plea deal, certain charges must be dropped.

Further, from one perspective, some of the charges which were deleted in a formal sense could be said to be woven into the charges which remained, sources said.

Her conviction as a member of the PFLP was based on a mix of her initial confession (with some implication of issues with the confession), her being a member of the UPWC, which was later declared connected to the PFLP, and her attending a PFLP event.

A film showing she took part in a PFLP event in memory of one of its senior political officials was distributed to the media by NGO Monitor and the Defense Ministry.

Her lawyer, Mahmoud Hassab, told Haaretz that thousands of other Palestinians from a variety of political streams, including from the Palestinian Authority, were also present at that event, and that her simple presence there did not indicate terrorist membership.

Hassan said most of the case against Saafin was based on the testimony of accountants Said Avidaat and Amro Hamuda, who were fired from the UHWC on allegations of embezzling funds.

A transcript of their interrogations was included in a Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) document presented to members of the US Congress to justify the terrorist declaration.

IN NOVEMBER, the Judea Military Court issued a ruling sentencing Spanish-Palestinian human rights activist Juana Rashmawi to 13 months in prison, but also undermining the government’s campaign against six Palestinian NGOs.

The same IDF court convicted Rashmawi of financing terrorism in a plea bargain, which also included an NIS 50,000 fine.

The conviction and its timing appeared not to be random, as the Defense and Foreign ministries unleashed a campaign simultaneously to present the case as evidence that the recent declaration of six other Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist groups was justified.

To date, much of the world has been skeptical about the Defense Ministry declaration that six Palestinian NGOs all double as fronts for the PFLP terrorist group.

Many have even said that the US Commerce Department declaration of Israeli cyber offensive firm NSO Group to be blacklisted was a partial pushback against the Israeli declarations.

The United States and many European Union countries have said or implied that Israel’s going after some of the human rights NGOs was at least partially politically motivated and an improper use of legal tools.

Essentially, the Israeli government’s argument on November 10 was that Rashmawi, who worked for the UHWC, had confessed to exactly the same kind of dual hat – human rights and terrorism-financing conduct – of which it has accused the other six NGOs.

However, the IDF court on Wednesday clarified that the indictment, conviction and sentencing decisions were split into two parts.

One part, Rashmawi confessed to – that unbeknown to her, her actions led to humanitarian funds being transferred to the PFLP, and that she had undertaken improper financial actions which facilitated this.

The second part, the broader factual context introduction which prosecutions generally provide to the court before getting into the specific accusations, Rashmawi did not admit to.

This second part was the section where the IDF prosecution sought to link her activities to broader allegations against the PFLP using several human rights NGOs to help it launder terrorist funds.

The IDF court said that this second part did not apply to Rashmawi and that it had not been proved that she knew she was facilitating terror funding or that there was a connection between her and proving terror funding by the other six NGOs.

On February 3, five of the Palestinian NGOs, with support from a group of Israeli human rights NGOs, requested that the IDF legal adviser for the West Bank reverse the terrorist declaration.

Though these groups had struggled against the declaration in the diplomatic and public relations arenas for several months, that request was the first formal legal move within the Israeli system to overturn it.

This latest IDF court decision regarding Saafin is likely only to strengthen their campaign.