Israeli Arabs charged with trying to set up terror cell
Two Israeli Arabs, one of whom holds a senior post in the Balad Party, were indicted yesterday in the Nazareth District Court for allegedly trying to set up a local Hezbollah cell to carry out terror attacks in Israel.
Ghassan Atmallah, 40, and his brother Sirhan, 26, both residents of Reineh, near Nazareth, were charged with aiding an enemy in wartime, contact with a foreign agent and membership in a terrorist organization. Ghassan is secretary of Balad for the Nazareth region and a member of the party's Central Committee. Both men have denied the charges against them.
According to the indictment, Ghassan met in Jordan about 18 months ago with a senior Fatah operative, Ibrahim Ajawa, and the two kept in touch through telephone calls and meetings thereafter. The charge sheet says Ajawa eventually put Ghassan in contact with Hezbollah, after which Ghassan allegedly began trying to recruit Israeli Arabs for the Lebanese organization. One of his recruits, the indictment says, was Sirhan; it did not reveal the names of any others.
Security sources have said they believe that the group had other members who have not yet been discovered.
The Atmallahs then set up a business to import goods from Turkey; and during Sirhan's business trips there, the indictment notes, he met with a Hezbollah agent known as Abu Waal. On one such trip, in December 2003, Sirhan and Abu Waal allegedly discussed financing for terror operations and arms purchases and prepared a list of Israeli Arab candidates for military training.
Sirhan then proceeded to Lebanon for a 10-day Hezbollah training course during which he studied the use of arms, bomb-making and basic security techniques such as how to shake a tail, the indictment says. While there, he allegedly asked Hezbollah to finance terror attacks in Israel, including arms purchases and training for Israeli Arab operatives. Hezbollah, the charge sheets says, asked him to prepare a list of possible targets for attacks, including both suicide and ordinary bombings, and a list of places where bombs and other weaponry could be hidden.
According to the indictment, Sirhan began preparing the lists and was slated to receive a ready-made bomb for his first attack, but was arrested upon his return to Israel in late December. Ghassan was also arrested, and last month, police raided Balad's Nazareth offices. However, the gag order imposed on the investigation was lifted only yesterday.
Shin Bet security service officials said that the brothers' importing business, in addition to providing cover for Sirhan's trips abroad, may also have been meant to facilitate arms smuggling into Israel.
The indictment represents the sixth time since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 that Hezbollah has been detected trying to organize terror activity among Israeli Arabs.
Ghassan said yesterday that the charges were "a big lie. For 20 years now, they have been persecuting me - the government, the Shin Bet and the entire Israeli establishment - just because I identify with my people, the Palestinian people."
Ghassan, a one-time activist in the radical Sons of the Village movement, has thrice been placed under administrative detention, but this is the first time he has ever been indicted.
Sirhan denied that he had ever been in Lebanon.
Balad issued a statement saying that the party operated within the law. "Balad has no connection to the investigation and the Atmallah brothers are not being investigated about their activity in Balad," the statement said.
Balad MK Wasal Taha added that at present, the accusations were merely unproven suspicions. "And to date," he continued, "all [previous accusations] have proved to be political persecution."
But in any case, he added, Balad had no connection to the affair, which "will not deter us from fighting against the occupation and for equality within the State of Israel - all within the framework of the law."