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Israel accuses Spanish woman of aiding banned militant group

May 6, 2021 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities on Thursday charged a Spanish woman under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, accusing her of funneling large sums of donations from European governments to a banned Palestinian militant group.

Juana Ruiz Sánchez was charged in a West Bank military court. Her indictment was the culmination of a more than year-long investigation into financing for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The group is regarded by Israel, the United States, Canada, and European Union as a terrorist organization.

Ruiz, a Spanish citizen and West Bank resident, has worked for Health Work Committees, a Palestinian non-governmental organization that provides medical services in the territory.

She was indicted on Israeli terrorism-financing offenses and other charges. The Palestinian NGO’s senior accountant, former accountant and former purchasing department manager were expected to be charged with similar offenses in the coming days, according to the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency.

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Ruiz, 62, had been held by Israeli authorities without charge since her arrest at her home near Bethlehem on April 13.

Spain’s Foreign Ministry, which has provided her with consular assistance, said it would continue talking to Israeli authorities to improve detention conditions for Ruiz. The ministry also said Spain has controls to prevent aid money from reaching military groups.

“We are open to examine any information that our partners want to share with us,” it said.

Israeli human rights lawyer Gaby Lasky, who is defending Ruiz, said she only received the evidence against her client when the indictment was presented. She said the hearing was postponed until Monday to allow her to review the evidence. In the meantime, Ruiz, who she said denies all the charges, remains in jail.

The PFLP is a Palestinian Leninist-Marxist militant group that opposes the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. It staged a number of airline hijackings in the 1970s and numerous attacks on Israeli civilians, including the 2001 assassination of then-tourism minister Rehavam Zeevi. It is part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the main Palestinian national movement.

The Shin Bet began investigating the PFLP’s finances following an August 2019 attack by the militant group in the West Bank that killed a 17-year-old girl and wounded her brother and father, an Israeli official said.

The investigation found at least seven Palestinian charities had funneled tens of millions of euros donated by European governments and organizations for humanitarian purposes to PFLP coffers.

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The Israeli official said the probe found that the NGO, along with other aid organizations, including the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and Addameer, “act under PFLP leadership and in accordance with the organization’s directives, as a cover for promoting the PFLP’s activities and funding.”

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Health Works Committees did not respond to requests for comment, while PFLP representatives declined comment.

But Abdul Latif Ghaith, the founder of Adameer, which assists Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, rejected the accusations. He called the charges “fabrications” aimed at harming the work of legitimate groups that he said “have credibility, operate with transparency, legality and legitimacy.”

Although the PFLP is one of the smaller Palestinian militant groups operating in the occupied West Bank, its cash pipeline from Europe has “developed considerably in the past decade,” the official said. “European governmental money helped build up this organization.”

Israel’s Foreign Ministry called on European governments to step up oversight of donations to Palestinian organizations to ensure they don’t wind up funding groups outlawed by the EU.

The EU’s embassy in Israel said the bloc was ready for a “full-fledged dialogue on these matters” and vowed to take “immediate appropriate measures” against any group found to use its money inappropriately.

“The EU is at the forefront of global anti-terrorism efforts,” it said.

A petition calling on Israel to free Ruiz and the other detainees’ was signed by nearly 6,000 individuals and organizations in Spain, saying the aid group was attacked by Israel “in a policy of repression, weakening and dismantling of civil society organizations of Palestine.”

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Associated Press writer Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.