On the Line

'Had I Known the Package Contained 12 Phones, I Wouldn't Have Brought It Into Prison'

In conversation with Haaretz, Joint List MK Basel Ghattas suggests the Israel Prison Service is trying to frame him for smuggling phones to a convicted murderer.

Arab-Israeli Knesset member Basel Ghattas arrives at the Israeli Rishon Lezion Justice court, near Tel Aviv on December 23, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

Hello.

Shalom, is this MK Basel Ghattas?

Who is this?

Am I speaking with the Knesset member?

Who is this?

Nir Gontarz of Haaretz.

Ahalan, Nir.

How are you?

Fine.

I heard that the Knesset has suspended you now from parliamentary activity for half a year.

Yes. It means I can’t attend committee meetings. But I still have the right to vote, according to law.

I get it.

In my case, so many conventions were broken and so many lines were crossed.

Yes, but ...

This is the first time the [Knesset] Ethics Committee has taken steps against an MK who’s under criminal investigation.

Arab-Israeli Knesset member Basel Ghattas (C) arrives at the Israeli Rishon Lezion Justice court, near Tel Aviv on December 23, 2016.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

There were some who were suspected of drug smuggling and corruption, and all kinds of things, but you also crossed a line.

What’s more dangerous? Bribery and embezzlement and rape and sexual harassment, for which no suspect has from the Knesset has ever been detained? Even those without immunity, like police officers and army generals, haven’t been detained.

I agree that there are people – I’m saying this in quotes – who are worse than you, and bigger criminals than you, whom the Knesset and the police and the State Prosecutor’s Office have treated differently. There’s no question that you’re the target of special sanctions, because you’re an Arab.

Great. I thought you’d never get to that sentence.

That’s my opinion. But they say you’re a smart guy. Why did you do such a stupid thing?

I had no reason to suspect, and on the rational level I still reject the idea that there were 12 phones in the envelopes I took.

It’s possible. They’re pretty small.

It doesn’t make sense to me. Both the man I met with and the man who gave them to me – I had no reason to suspect that there were telephones inside it – if it turns out that there really were. Everywhere in the world the suspect is assumed to be innocent. Here it’s just the opposite: as though I have to prove that there were no phones. There will be a trial, proceedings will be conducted, the case will be based on evidence and the police will have to prove it. I’ve been the victim of a lynching. They’re already saying “an MK in the service of terror” when I’m 100 percent convinced of the justice of every word I’m saying. I brought it in to a friend.

“A friend.”

Material he needed quickly for his work in translation and writing. According to an official Israeli government document [addressed] to the Palestinian Authority, he, Walid Daka, was supposed to be released already in April 2014. Why did Israel agree to free him in April 2014?

Forget him for a moment.

He’s a political person. A person who writes. An author.

He wrote a play that is apparently good artistically, but

He’s also written books.

Wonderful. And he was also a partner to murder, in a minor way.

That was 32 years ago.

Forget him for a moment. The fact is that you brought forbidden items to a convicted murderer in prison.

That’s a violation I committed. It’s a violation against Israel Prison Service regulations.

Do you swear to God – or I don’t know to what – that you really and truly didn’t know that there were phones there?

A thousand percent I didn’t know.

And had you known?

had I know that there were phones in it, I wouldn’t have brought it in! What’s all this nonsense? God almighty.

Good to know.

I’ve been a politician for 45 years. I work transparently, in daylight. I founded social-civil organizations. I founded Adalah [The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel], I was the executive director of the Galilee Society [The Arab National Society for Health, Research and Services], I founded the first research and development center in the Arab sector. I launched the first Arab startup, which is now being traded on Nasdaq.

That’s why I was so surprised when I heard what you did.

I taught for years at the Technion. I told the investigator: “What? A guy takes a pill at night and gets up in the morning wanting to lend a hand to terror?”

So you must be very angry at the person who gave you the package, Walid’s brother.

I still think there weren’t any phones in it.

Halas [Enough already]!

I have no reason to believe the Israel Police or the Israel Prison Service.

Halas! I can accept the fact that you didn’t know what was in the package. I tend to believe people. But to think that the police and the IPS are fabricating the evidence against you? I don’t think so.

It never entered my mind for a second that it could be phones.

Okay.

But I still don’t believe them. Why believe people who, 10 minutes after I left the prison, were already publicizing that I was suspected of security crimes?

Do you think that the police believe your version?

I have to convince the judges. With all the lynch atmosphere and the stormy sea of racism, I have hope that there is an island of sanity left in Israel, namely the courts and the judges, and I do hope.

Whatever the case, you violated the law.

I’m willing to pay for what I did. Not for what I didn’t do. I violated IPS regulations, and that’s all. I know it’s a violation. I explained my reasons for doing so. And you know what?

What?

There’s nobody who believes in the justice of his behavior who hasn’t faced a situation of having to choose between respecting the law or his basic ideals. Of justice. Of values. And I prefer values. What can you do the value of helping a person in distress, and even the continuing abuse, and the egregious injustice – I did it. I don’t deny it, and I don’t apologize and I’m willing to pay the price. But not for bringing in dangerous equipment in order to undermine state security. Definitely not that, and I’ll defend myself in court.

Good. Thank you, Basel.

Shalom, Nir.