Israeli Lawmakers Empower Minister to Decide Which MKs May Visit Security Prisoners

Move follows suspicions that MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List) smuggled cellphones and coded messages to security prisoners during a visit earlier this week.

Jonathan Lis
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Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas.
Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis

Lawmakers approved on Tuesday an initiative by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to choose which Knesset members may visit security prisoners, after MK Basel Ghattas has been accused of trying to smuggle cellphones to such inmates at Ketziot prison.

The Knesset House committee decided that visits to security prisoners, the majority of which are Palestinian, pose a security threat not covered by lawmakers' immunity and granted Erdan’s proposal to let him decide in coordination with the Knesset Speaker and the committee’s chairman, which coalition and opposition MKs would be allowed a prison visit, and who would not be entitled to do so. The visits would continue, though, to ensure parliamentary oversight of prison conditions.

Erdan said he was happy with the decision, which he saw as putting a stop to Knesset members’ visits to murderers and terrorists. 

“These visits serve a political purpose”, Erdan told the committee. “They give prisoners a public platform and raise their status within the prison community, thus harming state security.”

Ghattas was questioned under caution on Tuesday by a police special investigation unit. He is suspected of smuggling 12 mobile phones to security prisoners he was visiting. A search was carried out following information received by police intelligence. Policemen tried to detain Ghattas on his exit from the prison on Sunday but allege that he disregarded them.

Ayalon Prison.
Ayalon Prison.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

In response to the committee’s decision, the head of Meretz’s Knesset faction MK Ilan Gilon said that “these visits are done under parliamentary immunity granted to Knesset members, and violating this immunity hinders our ability to monitor in places where the public and media have no access. This is of utmost importance in a democracy.”

MK Oren Hazan said he abstained from voting since “as long as there are Jews in prison under the label of ‘security prisoners’ I want to ensure that I and my colleagues can see under what conditions they are held. If the proposal had referred only to Arab prisoners, who are traitors and enemies, I’d be the first to support it.”

MK Haneen Zoabi, from Ghattas’ faction, said that “you’ve already subjected him to a summary trial without knowing what took place, but you don’t deal with the issue of political prisoners.”

Ghattas dismissed the allegations against him two days ago as “another chapter in the political persecution of leaders of the Arab community and their activity. The police are trying to break the spirit of Balad and to hurt its political activitythe visits by Arab MKs are coordinated with the Prisons Services and are done with the approval of the ministry for public security. I have nothing to hide and I’ll continue to represent the Arab public through legitimate political activity.”

In Tuesday's committee debate, MK Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid called for not letting Ghattas into the building without going through a body search, with other MKs calling on the Knesset security officer to institute mandatory body searches for any lawmakers entering the building.

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