Netanyahu Seeks Legal Steps Against Arab Lawmakers for Visiting Terrorists' Families

Prime minister also expected to lodge complaint with Knesset ethics committee, after Israeli Arab MKs help campaign to return Palestinian terrorists' bodies withheld by Israel.

Avichai Mendelblit (right) consults with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting, September 2015.
Ohad Zwigenberg (Pool)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the attorney general on Saturday to examine what legal steps can the state take against the Arab lawmakers who met the families of Palestinian terrorists in Jerusalem this week. 

Netanyahu will also file a joint complaint with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to the Knesset Ethics Committee, a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said Saturday evening. "Members of Knesset who console the families of terrorists who murdered Israelis are unfit to serve in Israel's Knesset," an earlier statement said.

The meeting attended by MKs Jamal Zahalka, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi (all from the Joint Arab List’s Balad faction) was part of a campaign being conducted by the families, and legal aid and human rights groups. They are seeking the return of the bodies of family members, who were killed in the course of attacks, and are now being held by the Israeli authorities.

File Photo: MKs Basel Ghattas, Haneen Zoabi and  Jamal Zakalka from the Joint Arab List's Balad faction.
Rami Shlush

At the meeting with the Balad Knesset members, the families called the withholding of the bodies a step aimed at nothing other than inflicting distress. The MKs promised they would work with Israeli decision makers to have the bodies returned. As part of their campaign, the family members also met this week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Joint Arab List's Balad faction accused Netanyahu of exerting "inappropriate political pressure on the attorney general, and still treats him as the cabinet secretary, forgetting that he has an independent status and doesn't receive orders from Netanyahu."

"Netanyahu's continued incitement against the Arab MKs is another step in fortifying his regime, based on scare tactics and racism, in order to divert the debate from the main issue: Returning the bodies to their families to be buried, as required by any moral, human or religious standard," the faction said in a statement.

The Joint Arab List said that burying the dead is a human and religious duty, shared by Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and condemned Netanyahu's "incitement" against the lawmakers. The efforts to return the bodies are "perfectly legitimate regardless of the circumstances of the death," said the statement, adding: "The incitement must end, and actions must be taken so we can talk about life and not about bodies."

"The issue is being discussed by the political and security echelons. Some of the bodies were returned and some haven't, and so the furor around the activity to bring back those bodies which haven't yet been buried is unclear.

"The prime minister and some ministers and lawmakers exploited the issue to incite and call for punitive measures, even though no law has been broken, including the Knesset ethics code."

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee also condemned "Netanyahu's incitement campaign against the Arab public and its representatives." 

The committee said that Netanyahu and Edelstein know the purpose of the lawmakers' meeting with the families, and yet are still leading an "incitement wave meant to silence and block any political action by the Arab public's representatives."

Responding to critics’ from both the left and right, MK Zahalka told Channel 2 Friday that the issue was being blown out of proportion. When asked why the lawmakers observed a moment of silence for the terrorists, Zahalka responded, “That’s the way it is with all [mourning events] in the West Bank. You stand for a moment of silence for all the fallen Palestinian people.” He added that they too were “victims of the occupation.”

Knesset speaker Edelstein said Thursday that the Israeli Arab lawmakers' actions constituted incitement to murder. "It is unthinkable that while innocent civilians are being slaughtered in Israel's streets, Knesset members console and give voice to the murders' families. I view this as a severe assault on the Knesset and the state of Israel," he said, adding that Israel's Supreme Court justices should remember these incidents when debating petitions against barring the Israeli Arab politicians from running for Knesset.

The opposition Zionist Union joined in on condemning the visit. "The visit by Balad Knesset members to the terrorists' families encourages continued terrorism and murder of innocent people," the party stated.