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Court convicts Arab ex-MK after plea deal upheld

Under agreement, Basel Ghattas will serve two-year prison term after admitting to smuggling cellphones to terrorists

Former Joint (Arab) List MK Basel Ghattas arrives for a court hearing at the Beersheva's Magistrate's Court on March 22, 2017. (Herzl Yosef/Pool)
Former Joint (Arab) List MK Basel Ghattas arrives for a court hearing at the Beersheva's Magistrate's Court on March 22, 2017. (Herzl Yosef/Pool)

The Beersheba Magistrate’s Court convicted former lawmaker Basel Ghattas on Wednesday as part of a plea deal for exploiting his position to smuggle cellphones to convicted Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons.

As part of the deal, Ghattas admitted to the court to smuggling phones into prison, smuggling documents and breach of trust.

The verdict will be formally announced on April 9.

Ghattas, formerly of the Joint (Arab) List party, resigned from the Knesset on Sunday, as mandated by the plea deal, which will also see him face two years in prison, in exchange for the state dropping more serious charges of aiding the enemy and being an accomplice to terror.

Earlier Wednesday, the High Court threw out a petition by a number of prominent right-wing activists to scrap the plea deal, paving the way for Ghattas’s conviction.

Benzi Gopstein (C), Michael Ben-Ari (L) and Itamar Ben Gvir seen outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City on October 30, 2014. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Benzi Gopstein (C), Michael Ben-Ari (L) and Itamar Ben Gvir seen outside the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The petition to block the deal was submitted by four far-right activists: former Knesset member Michael Ben Ari; Bentzi Gopstein, founder of the Lehava anti-assimilation organization; Baruch Marzel; and attorney Itamar Ben Gvir.

Judge Menachem Mazuz said he found no reason to accept the petition.

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 that, in everything he had done, he was motivated 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 deal, 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 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.”

Security camera footage showing MK Basel Ghattas, right, handing an envelope to an inmate in an Israeli prison. (Screen capture: Channel 10)
Security camera footage showing MK Basel Ghattas, right, handing an envelope to an inmate in an Israeli prison. (Screen capture: Channel 10)

Ghattas came under criminal investigation after being caught on prison surveillance video passing envelopes to Palestinian security prisoners in January.

Police said that the MK exploited his position as a member of Knesset — who cannot be subjected to a body search — during a visit to Ketziot Prison in southern Israel last year, where he met with Walid Daka, a Palestinian prisoner serving a 37-year sentence for the 1984 abduction and murder of 19-year-old IDF soldier Moshe Tamam. The MK also met with Basel Ben Sulieman Bezre, who is serving a 15-year sentence on a terror conviction.

Ghattas consistently denied the allegations against him, but had to contend with video footage that appeared to show him smuggling the cellphones into the prison.

He was released to house arrest in January, five days after he was arrested. When that ended, he was still barred from all parliamentary activities except for plenum votes.

On Tuesday, Balad Party member Juma Azbarga was sworn in to the Knesset to fill the empty seat left by Ghattas.

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