Lawyer Accused of Swindling Palestinians, Migrant Workers

Mohammed Fukra allegedly told clients he could secure them Israeli citizenship.

In practice, this is not a "temporary residence permit," rather a petition that was discussed by the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, requesting that Abu Abid and three family members be granted Israeli residency for the purpose of family unification. The Supreme Court turned down the appeal, but that did not prevent Abu Abid's attorney, Mohammed Fukra, from presenting the appeal to the family, who do not understand Hebrew, as a temporary residence permit he secured for them via legal process.

"He's charged me NIS 20,000 until now to arrange an identity card for me, and I've been waiting for four years. He's asking me for another NIS 30,000," says Abu Abid's brother, Ziad, who is married to an Israeli citizen and was included in the petition. Although Fukra did not charge a fee for the so-called "temporary residence permit," an in-depth probe by Haaretz revealed that a number of grave complaints have already been filed against Fukra, from which it appears that he has embezzled clients' funds.

An amendment to the Citizenship Law bars Palestinians from receiving Israeli citizenship for the purpose of family unification. Nonetheless, this has not deterred Fukra from offering Abu Abid and his family, who are Shin Bet collaborators, the empty promise that he can secure, in return for several thousand shekels, Israeli citizenship through petitions that cannot be defended in court and are doomed from the outset. This is how Fukra has behaved toward dozens of Palestinians and foreign workers requesting work permits.

Kav LaOved, a non-profit organization that helps migrant workers, filed a complaint with the Israel Bar Association, which led to disciplinary proceedings currently in progress in the disciplinary court of the association's northern branch. The Bar Association confirmed that disciplinary proceedings have been initiated, but pointed out that as yet, no decision has been taken in this case.

Represented by attorney David Ben-Haim, 19 foreign workers have petitioned the courts, demanding that Fukra returns the thousands of dollars he collected as his fee for "arranging papers" for these workers. According to their court statement, Fukra collected on average of NIS 3,000 from each worker for his services in arranging legal residence permits for them. Fukra collected this fee, although he was well aware that the petitions would not stand up in court, because most of these workers had already used up the full period of their legal residence (63 months) in Israel.

In other cases, claims Ben-Haim, Fukra promised foreign workers that he would arrange for them a legal status enabling them to work in any field, although no such arrangement lawfully exists. "The petitions were prepared in a sloppy, careless fashion and their phrasing is vague and shows signs of being prepared offhandedly," notes the statement of claim. "Furthermore, they could not stand up in court ... The sole purpose of the defendant [Fukra] in submitting them was to create the false impression that the client was receiving proper legal representation."

The statement of claim also points out that the court dismissed the appeals out of hand, although Fukra presented them to his clients as legal authorizations.

Banda Herath of Sri Lanka, who has worked as a caregiver for the past four years, relates that he started looking for work in March 2008 after his employer passed away. In accordance with Interior Ministry procedures, if a foreign worker's employer dies, he or she has a defined period of time to find another position and avoid becoming an illegal worker. Herath turned to a friend he knew from Tel Aviv's central bus station, and she introduced him to Fukra, who promised to obtain a visa for him. Fukra demanded $3,500, partially paid for from the severance pay Herath received after working for three years with his previous employer; Herath was forced to borrow the remainder from friends. "I earn $600 a month. Every month, I send half that amount to my wife and son in Sri Lanka. But Fukra was demanding so much money, I couldn't send them money and my parents and brothers were forced to help them," he related.

The sacrifice Herath's wife and son made so that he could continue to be legally employed in Israel was in vain. After three months, his friend, Sunita, was arrested by the Immigration Police with the papers Fukra had provided her; it was only then that Herath understood that his own papers were illegal.

In fact, just as in Abu Abid's case, the papers were nothing but the documents of a petition that had been dismissed in court. The court's stamp on the documents was simply intended to create the impression that it was a legal authorization of the client's appeal. "An administrative petition," explains Ben-Haim, "can be submitted only if a concrete decision has been made by a state agency. The petitions [which are in Haaretz's possession] that he submitted were not against any specific decision. He did not tell his clients, 'Go to the Interior Ministry and apply for a visa; if your application is denied, I will submit an appeal.' In some cases, the prosecution's reaction [to the petition] was 'Why did he submit the petition in the first place?'"

According to testimony that Haaretz has received, Fukra used this same technique with Palestinians from the territories who wanted entry visas or Israeli identity cards for the purpose of family unification. It appears that Fukra collected thousands of shekels from Palestinian families in order to ostensibly provide them with legal representation.

As with the foreign workers, the petitions he submitted for his Palestinian clients could not stand up in court. Thus, for example, in May 2007 Fukra presented a petition by Ziad Abu Abid and his wife to the Supreme Court aimed at securing for them "legal status in Israel." The Supreme Court justices rejected the petition, explaining that it was "totally identical" with a previous petition Fukra had submitted on behalf of the couple, and was erased after Fukra had withdrawn it. Ziad had paid Fukra for that previous appeal, as well.

Fukra, 41, from the village of Bueina Nujidath in northern Israel, received his license to practice law in Israel in 1995. He operates four offices: two in the north of the country and two in Tel Aviv, one of them in the city's central bus station, which is frequented by foreign workers. Fukra has told clients that he was forced to close a fifth office, in Umm al-Fahm, after receiving threats.

The entrance of one of his offices, in an impressive stone building in Shfaram, is adorned with newspaper clippings depicting him as a crusading defender in various cases (including rape, a claim against a local authority and a road accidents). "He takes whatever he can lay his hands on - criminal cases, damage suits, whatever he can find," says one of his colleagues.

That is perhaps the motive behind the grandiose claim for NIS 851 million Fukra submitted against the prime minister, the defense minister and the Israel Defense Forces' chief of staff on behalf of 79 members of the Samouni family from Gaza, 25 of whom were killed in the IDF's bombardment during the recent Operation Cast Lead. In an interview with Haaretz a day after the petition was submitted, the family stated that they learned of the petition from the media; they had not given Fukra power of attorney to act on their behalf and he had not obtained any sworn affidavits from them with regard to what had happened in Gaza.

Fukra continues to maintain that the family did, in fact, provide him with power of attorney.

According to documents in Haaretz's possession, Fukra is apparently involved in a serious case of embezzling a client's funds: He allegedly used some of the money that Hani Abu Abid's family received as compensation from the Phoenix insurance company in response to a claim they made following the death of a son in a traffic accident in June 2004. According to Hani's wife, Lina, the compensation amounted to NIS 200,000. Instead of transferring the compensation to the family in cash, as the law requires, Fukra issued them postdated checks. Since the Abu Abids had no source of income at the time and were in immediate need of funds, the checks were cashed with a money changer who charged a 4-percent fee. Thus, the family did not receive the full amount of the compensation money to which they were entitled. Moreover, the checks were not honored by the bank because there were insufficient funds in the account - proof that use had been made of the compensation money, which the family would not even have received had they not gone to a money changer.

According to Lina, even the compromise agreement concerning the compensation payment was signed in a deceitful manner. "I cannot read Hebrew," she relates. "I was against the compromise agreement. One day, Fukra appeared and promised he would arrange for rental money to be provided by the state; he had me sign a document that he told me was a rental agreement."

However, according to Lina, the document was actually a compromise agreement with the insurance company. The compensation money was deposited in a "client deposits" account at a Bank Leumi branch in Nazareth. "A check drawn on a 'client deposits' account is a sure thing," explains Ben-Haim, "because the money has been provided by the insurance company and no one except the client is authorized to use it. If a check drawn on that account 'bounces,' that means that the lawyer has illegally used the client's money."