Arrested Israeli Arab Lawmaker Won't Be Able to Vote; Police Search His Office

The Knesset will have only 119 members until Basel Ghattas, suspected of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian inmates, is released from custody.

Basel Ghattas after being questioned by the police, December 20, 2016.
Nir Keidar

Police searched the Knesset offices of MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List) Sunday evening with the permission of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the first time such permission has been granted since 1979.

Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms Yosef Grif and the legislative body’s legal advisor Eyal Yinon accompanied the officers conducting the search.

Edelstein also decided on Sunday, on the basis of an opinion prepared by Yinon, that Ghattas will not be able to vote in the Knesset as long as he remains under arrest. This means the Knesset will have only 119 members until Ghattas is released and both the opposition and Ghattas’ own party will be short one Knesset member.

Ghattas was arrested last Thursday, following the lifting of his parliamentary immunity by the Knesset. He is suspected of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners in Israel. Immediately after his arrest, Edelstein and Grif decided to lock Ghattas’ office to prevent any evidence from being removed or destroyed.

The Rishon Letzion Magristrate’s Court ordered Ghattas held without bail for four days last Friday. The law governing the parliamentary immunity doesn’t specify whether an MK under arrest has to be released to attend Knesset votes or whether he can be barred from voting, even though there’s no way to appoint a substitute.

This question “raises two conflicting interests,” Yinon wrote in his opinion. On one hand, the voters who elected the MK’s party have an interest in continuing to be represented in the Knesset. On the other hand, releasing the MK to attend votes would “undermine the goals of the arrest, first and foremost, preventing any obstruction of the investigation.” In this conflict, he concluded, the latter interest must prevail.

Yinon noted that in 1979 then-MK Shmuel Rechtman (Likud) was transported from jail to the Knesset to participate in votes. But he had already been convicted of taking bribes at the time, so obstruction of the investigation was not an issue.

The law has since been amended such that any MK convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail automatically loses his seat and is replaced by the next person on his party’s slate.

Ghattas was videotaped passing envelopes to two Palestinian prisoners during a visit to Ketziot Prison. The visit was taped because the Israel Prison Service had received an intelligence tip about the plan to smuggle in cellphones. After Ghattas left, the prisoners were searched, and 12 cellphones were found on their persons.

Ghattas could potentially be charged with a long list of serious offenses, including conspiracy to commit a crime, fraud and breach of trust, providing material assistance to a terrorist organization, using property for terrorist purposes, bringing a forbidden and dangerous object into a prison; providing communications equipment with the goal of endangering human life and undermining national security or assisting a terrorist organization.