Arab MK banned from Knesset activity over smuggling phones to prisoners
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Arab MK banned from Knesset activity over smuggling phones to prisoners

Joint List’s Basel Ghattas, facing criminal investigation into contraband passed to Palestinian terrorists, restricted solely to casting votes until July

Arab Joint List member Basel Ghattas, left, is brought to court for a remand hearing after his arrest on December 22, 2016 on suspicion of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian prisoners, at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court, December 23, 2016. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Arab Joint List member Basel Ghattas, left, is brought to court for a remand hearing after his arrest on December 22, 2016 on suspicion of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian prisoners, at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court, December 23, 2016. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

The Knesset Ethics Committee voted on Monday to distance MK Basel Ghattas from the parliament for six months amid suspicions he smuggled over a dozen miniature cellphones and coded notes to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons.

Ghattas, of the Balad Party — part of the Joint (Arab) List faction — is facing a criminal investigation after he was caught on prison surveillance video passing envelopes to the prisoners last month.

Former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri and former Jerusalem Police chief Mickey Levi, both Yesh Atid MKs, filed an complaint with the committee, which voted 3-1 to eject Ghattas from Knesset plenum and committee debates until July.

Ghattas’s deeds “could have caused serious harm to national security,” Peri and Levi wrote to the committee.

The decision leaves his salary intact. His right to vote on bills, protected under the Basic Law: The Knesset, is also unaffected.

File: Kulanu party MK Rachel Azaria. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Kulanu party MK Rachel Azaria. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Ghattas caused “mortal harm to the standing of the Knesset,” Ethics Committee member MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) said in a statement after the vote.

She called the six-month ban a “meaningful punishment that sends a moral and ethical message to other MKs — you can’t abuse your immunity so flagrantly.”

The lone dissenter, Hadash MK Youssef Jabareen, who sits with Ghattas in the Arab Joint List faction, said it was inappropriate to level sanctions against the lawmaker before he had his day in court.

Ghattas waived his parliamentary immunity just hours before a December 22 session in the Knesset plenum was set to vote on removing it.

According to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who publicized the suspicions against Ghattas when he asked the Knesset to lift his immunity, police had obtained surveillance footage of Ghattas handing envelopes to prisoners at Ketziot Prison, south of Beersheba.

One of the prisoners was Walid Daka, who was sentenced to 37 years 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 for terror offenses.

The lawmaker refused to tell investigators who gave him the smuggled phones but his lawyers claim that police already knew who had provided them. Last week, officers arrested Assad Daka, Walid’s 65-year-old brother, on suspicion of handing the MK the envelopes to pass to his brother.

Prisons Service officials found 12 to 15 cellphones and at least a dozen SIM cards in the prisoners’ cells, along with what officials said were “coded” notes.

MK Basel Ghattas arrives at the Israel Police's Lahav 433 special investigation unit in Lod, December 20, 2016, for questioning. (Roy Alima/Flash90)
MK Basel Ghattas arrives at the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 special investigation unit in Lod, December 20, 2016, for questioning. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Ghattas admitted to passing the envelopes, and said he knew that even giving prisoners benign items during visits contravened Prisons Service regulations, but insisted he thought he was handing over reading material, not cellphones.

“I did not do anything that they say I did,” Ghattas told the al-Jazeera channel after his release from jail last week. “The aim is the political assassination of an Arab member of Knesset.”

“I think that this is part of the deterioration of the political system in Israel that includes racism, the rise of the right and political and religious extremism,” he said.

Ghattas said the decision by police to prosecute a member of Knesset for security offenses was “unprecedented,” and that it was “clear to me from the first moment that I had not done what they say,” he said.

He said it was the moral duty of Arab MKs to defend the rights of Palestinian prisoners. “We are willing to pay any price to to defend the rights of our people and of the prisoners in particular,” he said.

Arab lawmakers say that Palestinian security prisoners often have harsher conditions than Israeli security prisoners, most notably access to telephones to communicate with their families.

“My personal connection as a MK with the Palestinian prisoners is well known. I keep track of their problems and visit them in prison,” he said.

Before Monday’s Ethics Committee decision, Ghattas was permitted to attend Knesset debates accompanied by police supervisors, who escorted him up to the entrance of the plenum. Only elected lawmakers and specially appointed Knesset staffers are allowed inside the plenum hall itself.

In addition, Ghattas is forbidden to contact other suspects in the case. He is also barred from leaving the country and may not visit detention facilities to meet with security prisoners for 180 days.

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