Officials with intimate knowledge of the espionage investigation against an Israeli Arab head of a charity said yesterday that the case was one of the most serious ever against an Arab citizen since the founding of the state.

Ameer Makhoul, an author who heads Ittijah, also known as the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations, was arrested last month by the Shin Bet security service for allegedly contacting an agent from Hezbollah. Authorities also detained Omar Said, a member of the Balad movement.

Prosecutors yesterday submitted a declaration of intent to indict Makhoul to the Petah Tikva Magistrate's Court, two days after a similar declaration was presented in the Said case. Legal officials are formulating the wording of a criminal indictment against Makhoul, who will most likely face charges of serious security violations, including aggravated espionage, aiding the enemy during wartime, and contact with a foreign agent. Said will be accused of lesser crimes, including contact with a foreign agent and passing information to an enemy.

Officials brace for backlash

According to police, the Northern District Prosecutor's office will submit the indictment against Said to the Nazareth District Court as Said is a resident of nearby Kafr Kana. Makhoul will most likely be indicted either tomorrow or in the coming days in the Haifa District Court.

The sensitivity of the case has prevented the suspect's lawyers, Hussein Abu Hasin (who also serves as chairman of the board of Ittijah ), Hasan Jabareen and Orna Kohn of the civil rights NGO Adalah, from commenting on the matter in closed forums due to strict confidentiality limitations imposed by the courts.

Political activists and NGO representatives in the Arab sector have noted a recent decline in the scope of public protests over the arrest of Makhoul and Said. Officials said they are bracing for a backlash against the Arab political parties, particular Balad, as well as the entire Arab-speaking populace of Israel immediately following the indictments.

Makhoul's brother, former MK Issam Makhoul, has yet to speak with his brother since the arrest. Issam Makhoul accused the Shin Bet of employing illegitimate means to "trump up" charges against his brother. The Shin Bet has denied allegations that it used torture to extract information from the suspects.

"We will demand that an outside body headed by a judge investigate this matter," Issam Makhoul said. "We will not hesitate to appeal to an international agency. There's no doubt that we are about to see a trumped-up case manufactured by the Shin Bet, which operated in dark corners and backrooms to put this together. The results of their investigation should be viewed with doubt."

A coalition of civil rights groups, including Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights and the Public Committee Against Torture, petitioned the Petah Tikva Magistrate's Court, demanding that it reveal the Shin Bet's investigatory methods. PHR has also demanded that Petah Tikva District Court permit its own doctors to evaluate Makhoul's medical condition in jail.