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Israel indicts MK Basel Ghattas for smuggling phones to Palestinian prisoners

Jan. 5, 2017 1:53 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 6, 2017 11:46 A.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israel’s attorney general approved on Thursday the indictment of Knesset member Basel Ghattas on charges of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli custody.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Ghattas, a member of the Joint List political bloc which represents Palestinian-led parties in the Knesset, was charged with suspicions of “illegally smuggling phones into a prison, prohibited use of property for terrorist purposes,” and “deceit and breach of trust by a public servant and aggravated fraud.”

Israeli media outlet Ynet reported that the indictment linked Ghattas with Walid Daka, a Palestinian citizen of Israel imprisoned for abducting and murdering Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984, and Basel Bizra, an imprisoned Fatah member.

According to Ynet, the indictment states that Ghattas "conspired with Walid Daka, Bizra, and Daka's brother Assad to bring cellphones into the prison and deliver them to Bizra so he could deliver them to Daka and other security prisoners."

"Walid contacted Ghattas from prison using a cellphone that was brought into the prison without authorization and was unlawfully kept by Walid,” the indictment added. “As part of the aforementioned ties and to promote said ties, the defendant asked to visit Walid and Bizra in prison. His declared reason for visiting was hearing the prisoners' complaints over the conditions of their imprisonment and trying to find out if there is an option to ease their conditions."

Ynet reported that the indictment described meetings between Ghattas and the two prisoners when the MK allegedly passed on packages containing communication materials and documents to Daka and Bizra.

Ghattas is expected to be brought before a judge on Thursday.

Last month, Ghattas was detained on suspicions of smuggling cellphones to “Palestinian terrorists” serving time in Israeli prisons after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity. After several days spent in detention, Ghattas was sentenced to 10 days of house arrest last week, a few days before the Ethics Committee of the Israeli Knesset banned the MK from parliamentary activities for six months.

As a result of the ban, Ghattas would not be allowed to speak at the Knesset's committee meetings, make speeches at the plenum, or submit bill proposals. He would, however, still be able to vote, but not during the period of his house arrest.

According to Ynet, a statement released on behalf of Ghattas at the time of his arrest stated that this was "a vengeful and arbitrary arrest, because the police, (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and (Public Security) Minister (Gilad) Erdan want a photo of an Arab MK in handcuffs.”

“The arrest is a political move and is not necessary to the investigation. Fairness obligates to treat an Arab public representative just like a Jewish one, and that is not the situation here,” the statement added.

Dozens of protesters also gathered outside the Israeli magistrate court in the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion during his sentencing, raising photos of Ghattas and posters criticizing the Israeli government. Some of the posters read "No to politically motivated pursuit" and "Free Basel Ghattas".

According to prisoners' rights group Addameer, 7,000 Palestinians were imprisoned by Israel as of October. Any correspondence with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel can be considered an act against the security of the state of Israel, making it dangerous for both Palestinian citizens of Israel and those holding Jerusalem permits to engage with Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Critics have said the arrest represents the latest event in a concerted crackdown on Joint List MKs in an attempt to squelch opposition to the Israeli government’s right-wing policies in the occupied Palestinian territory, commonly resting on allegations of “incitement” or supporting “terrorism."

In July, the Knesset passed into law a bill that would allow MKs to vote to oust their colleagues from office, legislation that has been slammed by critics as targeting Palestinian MKs and harmful to “the very building blocks of democracy.”

The bill was first introduced after Palestinian MKs paid visits to the families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces after they carried out attacks, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying in March the law would be used to suspend MKs who "stand behind terror."

The legislation regained traction after Balad MK Hanin Zoabi enraged lawmakers by calling Israeli soldiers who participated in the 2010 deadly raid of the Turkish aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip “murderers,” as she was forcibly removed from the plenum for her comments.

In response to the incident, Coalition Chairman David Bitan of the Likud party, with the support of Netanyahu, unsuccessfully tried to shelve the suspension bill in exchange for a law designed simply to oust Zoabi.

The actions against the Joint List, which was formed when four Palestinian parties joined to fight for the rights of Israel's Palestinian minority, and other left-wing organizations in Israel have laid bare a deep rift in Israeli society as the extreme right-wing has gained traction on the Israeli political and social scene.

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