Balad Party member Juma Azbarga was sworn in to the Knesset Tuesday to fill the empty seat left by Joint (Arab) List MK Basel Ghattas, who was forced to resign this week over a phone-smuggling scandal.
“I am entering the Knesset with a desire to work energetically on behalf of my constituents and the general public,” Azbarga said after his swearing-in. Balad is a faction in the Joint List.
Azbarga, a 59-year-old resident of the Bedouin town of Lakiya in the Negev, said he hoped to use his background in healthcare management to better serve Israel’s Arab minority.
Up until his retirement four years ago, Azbarga was the liaison between the Maccabi Healthcare Services and Israel’s Bedouin communities.
Azbarga singled out the housing demolitions in unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert as an area of particular interest to him.
“I intend to fight for settlement recognition in the Negev and to deal with poverty issues among the residents there,” he said.
Azbarga said he was sorry to have entered the Knesset “under such difficult circumstances.”
Ghattas resigned from the Knesset on Sunday as part of a plea deal that will see him face two years in prison for smuggling cellphones to convicted Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons.
Prosecutors on Friday filed an indictment in the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court against the Joint (Arab) List lawmaker, formally charging him with smuggling phones into prison, smuggling documents and breach of trust.
Speaking at a press conference in Nazareth Friday after the charges were filed, Ghattas said he had been unfairly persecuted because he was an Arab lawmaker.
Israeli authorities “crossed a series of red lines because I am an Arab MK,” Ghattas said. “You all know that there have been investigations against other lawmakers, ministers and prime ministers, the president and senior army officers, who were suspected of far more serious crimes, and none of them was arrested or had their (parliamentary) immunity revoked.”
Ghattas said everything he did was driven by personal reasons of conscience and humanitarian feelings toward the prisoners, adding that he had decided to take the deal after “examining all his options.”
Under the plea, lawyers for both sides will request a jail term of two years and the prosecution will ask that Ghattas be fined.
The court will be left to decide on the length of an additional, suspended sentence, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.
Prosecutors will also ask for the offenses to be branded moral turpitude, which, under Israeli law, triggers a ban from public office for seven years.
Ghattas’s resignation puts an end to efforts by lawmakers to oust him from the parliament by using the MK Impeachment Law. The newly passed legislation allows for MKs to expel a colleague for “supporting a terror group’s armed struggle against the State of Israel.”