A powerful Knesset committee will convene on Wednesday afternoon to vote on whether to strip Joint (Arab) List MK Basel Ghattas of his parliamentary immunity, after he came under suspicion of passing contraband to Palestinian inmates in Israeli prison.
Ghattas was questioned by the national serious crimes unit of the Israel Police on Tuesday over allegations he handed miniature cellphones and secret notes to two imprisoned Palestinians, one of whom is serving a 37-year sentence for murder, during a visit at Ketziot Prison south of Beersheba on Sunday.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sent an urgent appeal to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday morning, calling on the House Committee to vote on Ghattas’s immunity in a bid to advance the criminal proceedings against the Arab lawmaker.
The meeting by the House Committee, announced by chairman Yoav Kisch (Likud), will determine whether Ghattas’s immunity can be stripped, opening the lawmaker up to arrest and possibly paving the way for him to stand trial.
“We will hold a substantive debate, not an incendiary one,” Kisch said in a statement. “The ramifications are serious and we will treat it accordingly.”
Several coalition lawmakers have called for Ghattas, an MK from the Balad party, part of the Joint List faction, to be stripped of the immunity he enjoys as a member of Knesset and be put on trial after the allegations surfaced.
In his letter to Edelstein, Mandelblit confirmed there was video footage of Ghattas handing over papers to one prisoner — Walid Daka — and giving four envelopes to a second inmate, Basel Ben Sulieman Bezre, who is serving a 15-year sentence for terror offenses.
When the meetings concluded, prison officials searched and found 12 cellphones, 16 SIM cards, two phone batteries and a headphone in the envelopes, the attorney general said. The papers given to Daka were also seized and submitted for translation, he said.
During Ghattas’s interrogation on Tuesday, the Arab lawmaker initially denied all the allegations against him, said Mandelblit. But when presented with the video evidence, he admitted to giving the envelopes to the prisoner, while insisting he had no idea what the envelopes contained. Ghattas also confessed to giving Daka papers in violation of prison rules, but maintained the documents contained only “political content” related to the Balad party.
According to the attorney general, the second prisoner admitted to receiving the envelopes from the lawmaker, but said he was unaware of their contents. Daka denied the documents found on his person were from Ghattas.
Also Tuesday, the House Committee issued a blanket ban on Knesset members visiting prisoners serving time for terrorism and other security crimes.
The Shin Bet security service recommended the ban, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said at the meeting.
Erdan said he had spoken to Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and “as far as he is concerned, a blanket ban on all meetings between MKs and security prisoners should be instituted,” the minister informed the committee.
The ban could only come from the Knesset itself as lawmakers enjoy parliamentary immunity from such restrictions by any other law enforcement bodies. The ban applies to all prisoners held for national security offenses, whether Palestinian or Israeli.
Asked about the case Tuesday, Erdan denounced Ghattas.
“This is a member of Knesset who just three-four months ago held a moment of silence for the memory of the murderers in the recent terror wave in Jerusalem, who joins flotillas of identification with Gaza, who calls [former president] Shimon Peres the greatest of war criminals, who sneaks onto the Temple Mount just to provoke. It won’t be such a disaster if he isn’t in the Knesset — even if he isn’t convicted [in the current case],” the minister said.
As he entered the police building Tuesday, Ghattas told reporters, “I will come out with my head held high, and in the end it will turn out that they made a mountain out of a molehill.”
Calling the accusations “a political witch hunt,” he said, “We have become accustomed to questioning like this — it is all just to harm our struggle [for the Palestinian cause].”
Daka, one of the prisoners visited by Ghattas, is serving a 37-year sentence for the abduction and murder of 19-year-old IDF soldier Moshe Tamam. Tamam was abducted by a group of Arab Israelis as he got off a bus a few minutes away from his home outside of Netanya in August 1984. His body was located four days later – he had been shot, and his face was badly mutilated.
Four Arab Israelis affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were later convicted for the attack, including Daka, who in 1987 was handed a life sentence for his involvement (in 2012, then-president Shimon Peres chiseled the sentence down to 37 years).
Daka made headlines in 1999 after he became the first Palestinian prisoner permitted to wed while incarcerated, and for his protracted legal battle for a conjugal furlough. Among his writings are a book, “Redefining Torture,” and columns for various publications. Daka has also legally disavowed his former membership with the PFLP and denies all the charges against him. His life story inspired a play — “A Parallel Time” — which was performed at the Al-Midan theater in the northern city of Haifa, drawing a furious response from both Tamam’s relatives and the Culture Ministry.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.