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Arab-Israeli party suspected of multimillion-shekel fraud

More than 20 suspects arrested in massive sweep; Balad calls allegations ‘baseless,’ part of ‘persecution campaign’

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Joint (Arab) List members Jamal Zahalka (left), Basel Ghattas (center) and Hanin Zoabi (right) at the weekly Joint (Arab) List meeting at the Knesset, on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List members Jamal Zahalka (left), Basel Ghattas (center) and Hanin Zoabi (right) at the weekly Joint (Arab) List meeting at the Knesset, on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli police on Sunday arrested more than 20 activists and members of the Arab Israeli party Balad, saying an investigation revealed that the party had concealed the origin of millions of shekels in donations.

Balad, which holds three Knesset seats and is one of the four parties comprising the Joint (Arab) List faction, said the arrests were part of a systematic campaign of political persecution.

Those arrested in the sweep of Balad’s offices included senior members and activist, among them lawyers and accountants, a police statement said.

Police said they opened their investigation into Balad with the approval of the attorney general after a state comptroller report raised the suspicion that senior members and activists had created a mechanism to “systematically misrepresent” the origins of millions of shekels donated to the party to finance its operations in recent years.

Joint Arab List Knesset members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R) ,Basel Ghattas (2R) and Ayman Odeh (C) at the weekly faction meeting in the Knesset, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint Arab List Knesset members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R) ,Basel Ghattas (2R) and Ayman Odeh (C) at the weekly faction meeting in the Knesset, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The party allegedly reported large donations from “various sources in Israel and abroad” as if they were hundreds of smaller contributions made within Israel.

Police said the suspicions included “falsifying corporate documents, forgery, use of forged documents, money laundering, and violating the party financing law.”

In a statement to the press, Balad denied the charges, calling them “fabricated” and “baseless.”

“The latest arrests are a brazen and dangerous escalation, but will not deter us from continuing our work,” the statement said.

Balad called the arrests an “authoritarian” attempt to undermine the party’s “national and democratic role.”

A statement in Hebrew added that the arrests were part of a “campaign of persecution against the Arab minority in general and against the political movement [Balad] specifically.”

The Joint List said in a brief statement that it would not comment on the arrests.

Balad, which advocates for a binational state for Palestinians and Israelis, has been dogged by controversy.

Its founder, Azmi Bishara, fled Israel in 2007 amid accusations that he had provided the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah with information during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. He has since been living in Qatar.

Former Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara (photo credit: Flash90)
Former Israeli Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara (photo credit: Flash90)

Earlier this year, the party’s three Knesset members were widely condemned after they visited the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis. They were suspended on February 8 by the Knesset Ethics Committee: Hanin Zoabi and Basel Ghattas for four months and Jamal Zahalka for two.

More recently, Ghattas made headlines for calling former president Shimon Peres a “blood-covered war criminal,” after the Nobel Peace Prize-winner was hospitalized due to a stroke.

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