Arab Lawmaker to Remain in Israeli Custody: He Won't Rat, Police Say

Basel Ghattas, who waived his Knesset immunity, is suspected of smuggling smartphones to Palestinians in prison for security offenses.

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

Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas (Joint List) will remain in police custody until next week, an Israeli judge ruled Friday. Ghattas was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of smuggling smartphones to Palestinian prisoners held for security-related offences.

Ghattas waived his parliamentary immunity on Thursday, only hours before his fellow lawmakers voted for it to be lifted. He was detained by the police shortly after the vote.

The Joint List lawmaker is potentially facing charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, fraud and breach of trust, providing resources to a terrorist organization, providing prohibited articles for terrorist purposes, transferring communications equipment with the purpose of harming human life and harming the security of the state or assisting a terror organization.

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

Police requested that Ghattas remain in custody for another six days. They described the lawmaker as being uncooperative and refusing to disclose who gave him the phones, on the grounds that "he doesn’t want to be an informer."

Ghattas’ lawyer denied the claim, saying the police know who passed on the phones, but refuse to divulge the information.

Knesset Speaker Yuri Edlestein said on Friday morning that Ghattas’ Knesset bureau had been sealed to prevent any “disruption of the investigation.” Edelstein told a radio interviewer that no one will be allowed to enter the bureau, including “his parliamentary assistants and cleaners.”

A police representative told the court that the lawmaker “used his immunity to visit two security prisoners, one serving a life sentence and the other serving a sentence of 15 years. He was recorded taking envelopes out of his pocket and giving them to the prisoners. He pre-arranged his visit with one of the prisoners, who was using a phone that had previous being smuggled into the prison.”

The Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court judge ordered Ghattas’ remand extended until Monday. “Given that we are dealing with a Knesset member, this case has special legal sensitivity,” the judge said in his ruling. “At this stage, there is still a long way to go before a violation of the anti-terror law can be proved but there are sufficient grounds to suspect that release of the suspect could endanger the safety of the public and jeopardize the inquiry.”

Ghattas maintains that he thought the parcel he transferred to one of the prisoners contained books and that he did not examine the contents. The judge confirmed Ghattas’ claim that the documents contained in the packages were the political platform of Ghattas’ party, Balad, and that there were no encrypted documents.

The prisoners to whom he is suspected of giving the packages were named as Walid Dakah and Besel Suliman Bazrah. Police maintained that Dakah had confessed under interrogation that he had asked Ghattas to bring the packages from a third party Police said that Ghattas had refused a confrontation with the two prisoners.

The court session was attended by Brig, Gen. Koresh Barnur, head of the National Fraud Squad, and Ghattas’ Knesset colleagues Haneen Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka. In a statement issued after the court session, Balad described the detention of Ghattas as “an unprecedented step for which there is no justification.” It added that “Jewish Knesset members and public figures have never been arrested while investigations against them were ongoing, even when they faced very serious charges.”

The statement said that Ghattas’ detention was “an inseparable part of the witch-hunt against the political activities of Balad and the other Arab parties and organizations.”