Knesset Committee Votes to Strip Israeli Arab MK of Immunity Over Alleged Security Offenses

Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas is accused of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners.

Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas arrives for questioning in relation to accusations that he smuggled cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners, December 21, 2016.
Nir Keidar

The Knesset House Committee voted to strip Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas (Joint List) of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution following accusations he smuggled cellphones to security prisoners. The committee, chaired by MK Yoav Kish (Likud), convened to discuss and vote on lifting his immunity on Wednesday afternoon, at the request of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

Ghattas informed Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that he will not attend the committee session, saying the results are known in advance, and will not voluntarily relinquish his parliamentary immunity.

The Yesh Atid faction, headed by MK Yair Lapid, announced its support for lifting Ghattas' immunity. The committee's decision must be approved by the full Knesset to lift an MK's immunity. The Knesset will hold a session on the issue on Thursday.  

Ghattas, a member of the Balad party (which is a faction in the Joint List  of Arab parties in the Knesset) was questioned for four hours by police on Tuesday, with the permission of the attorney general, after 12 cellphones and documents were found with prisoners  he had visited at Ketziot Prison on Sunday. The search began based on intelligence information the Israel Prison Services had received a few days earlier. 

The police tried to detain Ghattas as he exited the prison on Sunday, but he refused to cooperate. He was finally questioned on Tuesday  and has been shown some of the evidence against him, which includes tapes and video documenting him allegedly passing the mobile phones and documents to the prisoners.

Ghattas stated on Wednesday morning that he fully expects his immunity to be voided and to face trial, and will fight to clear his good name in court. In an interview on Radio Al-Shams, which broadcasts from Nazareth, Ghattas said the police and law enforcement system are conducting a campaign of incitement and defamation against him.  He insisted he had committed no crime and did nothing to harm the security of Israel; his visits to the prisoners are for humanitarian reasons, Ghattas said. The police have been trampling his rights and preventing him from conducting the process fairly through leaks, which has allowed the press and politicians, including members of the House Committee,  to begin a campaign of persecution - even before I was summoned for questioning and before I was questioned, he added.

"Even after I appeared for questioning as is accepted and I answered all the investigators questions over four hours, the police continued to conduct the affair through the media and through providing the opportunity for slander while damaging by honor and my right to a fair process," said Ghattas.  

Meretz MK Ilan Gilon called on Ghattas to willingly forgo his immunity to spare himself embarrassment. Ghattas stands accused of serious crimes and if he believes the case to be otherwise, he can prove it without resorting to the immunity conferred on him as a Knesset member, Gilon said. 

How he did it

How could Ghattas sneak mobile phones to security prisoners, anyway? Mendelblit addressed that very question at the behest of Edelstein ahead of Wednesday's immunity debate.

Based on preliminary information, Mendelblit had approved having Ghattas' visit with two prisoners videotaped, he explained in writing. "During the first meeting with the prisoner [Walid] Daka, MK Ghattas was documented on tape giving him papers. The second meeting with the prisoner [Basel] Bazara and the video showed MK Ghattas giving the prisoner envelopes. MK Ghattas had removed the envelopes from the internal pockets of his coat and gave them to Prisoner Bazara, who put them down his trousers."

Daka is serving a 37-year sentence for the kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam. Bazara is serving a 15-year sentence for terrorism related offenses.

The prisoner left the meeting and was immediately searched by wardens, Mendelblit explained. The search found four envelopes with 12 cellphones, 16 SIM cards, two chargers and one earbud. 

"After the discovery of these items on the Prisoner Bazara's person, based on my prior permission, MK Ghattas was asked to accompany the police for questioning, but he refused the police officers' request," the attorney general wrote.

On Tuesday, however, Ghattas arrived for questioning at the Lahav 443 national investigations unit, often called Israel's FBI,  during which he denied giving the prisoners anything. He was confronted with the evidence against him, including the footage of himself giving the envelopes with the phones to Bazara. Ghattas then admitted to giving Bazara the envelopes but said he had not been aware they contained phones and accessories, Mendelblit wrote.

Bazara did confirm that he had received the envelopes from Ghattas but says he didn't know what was in them. He denied receiving documents from Ghattas, saying the papers found on him weren't from the lawmaker.