Arab lawmaker MK Basel Ghattas was arrested Thursday night on suspicion of smuggling cell phones, SIM cards, and coded messages to convicted terrorists serving time in Israel’s prisons.
The arrest came immediately after a second round of police questioning under caution in as many days, and just hours after Ghattas, of the Arab Joint List in the Knesset, waived his parliamentary immunity.
Police reportedly arrested the lawmaker over concerns he might flee the country.
Thursday’s interrogation was attended by senior officials from the State Prosecution, who are required to approve steps such as his arrest and searches of his home and office.
A police spokeswoman said Ghattas will appear at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court early Friday morning for a remand hearing.
According to Hebrew media reports, Ghattas allegedly passed as many as 15 cellphones and several SIM cards to inmates serving sentences for national security offenses in Ketziot prison south of Beersheba.
Ghattas was also suspected of handing “intelligence information” to one of two prisoners in encoded notes, a Channel 2 report said. The notes contained information from other security prisoners, the report claimed, as well as mentions of former Balad MK Azmi Bishara, who fled Israel in 2007 to escape a police and Shin Bet investigation into allegations he was paid by Hezbollah to help locate targets for rocket attacks within Israel.
One of the prisoners that Ghattas is alleged to have met with during a Sunday visit to Ketziot is Walid Daka, who was sentenced to 37 years for the 1984 abduction and murder of 19-year-old IDF soldier Moshe Tamam.
The phones, discovered concealed behind plastic molding surrounding a window in the visitors room, were allegedly intended to be collected by prisoners who belong to the Islamic Jihad terror group.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) welcomed the arrest. “The police will act decisively to bring MK Ghattas to justice for his serious actions,” he said in a statement.
“Anyone who smuggles cellular devices to a murderer in prison is a danger to the public whose place is behind bars.”
As the public security minister, Erdan has overall managerial oversight of the Israel Police and Prisons Service, but no say in the conduct of investigations or prosecution of suspects.
The Knesset formally accepted Ghattas’s waiving of his parliamentary immunity on Thursday afternoon.
In an interview earlier in the day with the A-Shams Arabic-language radio station, Ghattas accused police of “leading and managing a warped media campaign against me. I didn’t commit any crime.”
Ghattas, a Christian Arab from the Galilee and a member of the Balad Palestinian nationalist party that is part of the four-party Joint List, was first questioned on Tuesday about the suspicions. Police showed him video surveillance footage allegedly showing him handing envelopes containing the items to prisoners during at least one visit.
According to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Ghattas acknowledged to police that he had handed over the envelopes and notes, and admitted he knew that doing so was forbidden, but said he did not actually know what the envelopes contained and believed the notes to be Balad party pamphlets.
After the first round of questioning, police were prevented from continuing to investigate the case due to Ghattas’s parliamentary immunity.
On Wednesday, Mandelblit asked the Knesset to begin the legal process for rescinding the immunity. Under the Parliamentary Immunity Law, the parliament’s speaker must issue a formal request to the Knesset House Committee, which must then submit its recommendation for the revocation to the plenum, where the entire Knesset must vote its agreement. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein acquiesced to Mandelblit’s request, and the House Committee met Wednesday – all Arab MKs, including Ghattas, declined to attend the meeting – and issued a unanimous recommendation to lift the MK’s protections. The full plenum vote was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
But just before MKs could hold the vote on Thursday, Edelstein announced from the podium that Ghattas had sent him a written statement waiving his immunity of his own accord. Under law, Ghattas’s immunity was officially lifted with Edelstein’s announcement.
In a Thursday video message to his supporters in Arabic, Ghattas was dismissive of the allegations.
“This immunity is yours, I give it back to you,” he said, apparently referring to the Knesset.
He added, “I waive this immunity out of total faith in my innocence, because I have nothing to hide. I will answer any question they ask me. I repeat that I did not commit any crime against what is called ‘state security.'”
For his part, Speaker Edelstein chastised leaders of the Arab community for not speaking out on the case.
“Speaking personally, in recent days a voice has been missing, the voice of the representatives of the Arab public. I would expect to hear their representatives, but their voices were not heard. I urge my colleagues, take to your keyboards and microphones and say something to a community that is waiting to hear from you,” he said.
Knesset House Committee Chair MK Yoav Kisch said the committee’s unanimous recommendation to rescind the immunity Wednesday “does not accuse an entire community.”
Channel 2 reported that yet another smuggled cellphone was discovered Thursday in the cell of a Palestinian terror convict in Nafha Prison in the south.