Paving the way for the first-ever indictment and arrest of a sitting parliament member, a Knesset committee voted unanimously Wednesday to remove the parliamentary immunity of Joint (Arab) List MK Basel Ghattas, who is accused of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners jailed in Israel.
The 15 members of the Knesset House Committee voted in favor of the motion after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said there was sufficient evidence to charge Ghattas for illegally taking the devices to the prisoners earlier this week.
Ghattas was questioned Tuesday by investigators from Lahav 433, the national serious crimes unit of the Israel Police, over allegations he handed the miniature cellphones and secret notes to the two Palestinians during a visit to Ketziot Prison on Sunday. One of the prisoners, Walid Daka, is serving a 37-year sentence for the 1984 murder of an IDF soldier.
Mandelblit sent an urgent appeal to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday morning, calling on the House Committee to vote on ending Ghattas’s immunity in order to advance the criminal proceedings against him.
After voting in favor, the committee called a special plenary session for 4 p.m. on Thursday — a day on which the plenum does not normally sit — for a final vote that would officially remove Ghattas’s immunity. According to the Law of Parliamentary Immunity, that debate must take place at least 24 hours after the committee ruling in order to let the MK to petition the High Court against the decision.
If the Knesset votes Thursday in favor of lifting the immunity, Ghattas could be arrested immediately.
Despite a heated debate in which several MKs were removed for disturbances, including coalition chair David Bitan, every present member of the committee voted for the motion with no abstentions or objections.
The two Joint List MKs on the committee, Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadi, were not present for the debate. A statement from the party said the faction was boycotting the committee session as the results were a foregone conclusion.
“We decided not to participate in the Knesset meeting about the immunity of Basel Ghattas, as it is an inciting and grandstanding meeting, a field tribunal, whose results are known in advance,” the statement read.
In his letter to Edelstein, Mandelblit confirmed there was video footage of Ghattas handing over papers to Daka and giving four envelopes to a second inmate, Basel Ben Sulieman Bezre, who is serving a 15-year sentence for terror offenses.
When the meetings concluded, prison officials found 12 cellphones, 16 SIM cards, two phone batteries and headphones in the envelopes, the attorney general said. The papers given to Daka were also seized and submitted for translation, he said.
During the committee session, several MKs said the police should have been able to arrest him on the spot, given the video footage.
During Ghattas’s interrogation Tuesday, the Arab lawmaker initially denied all the allegations against him, said Mandelblit. But when presented with the video evidence, he admitted giving the envelopes to the prisoner, while insisting he had no idea what they contained. Ghattas also confessed to giving Daka papers in violation of prison rules, but maintained the documents contained only “political content” related to the Balad party.
According to the attorney general, the second prisoner admitted receiving the envelopes from the lawmaker but said he was unaware of their contents. Daka denied the documents found on his person were from Ghattas.
On Tuesday, the House Committee issued a blanket ban on Knesset members visiting prisoners serving time for terrorism and other security crimes.
The Shin Bet security service recommended the ban, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said at the meeting.
Erdan said he had personally spoken to Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman and “as far as he is concerned, a blanket ban on all meetings between MKs and security prisoners should be instituted,” the minister informed the committee.
The ban could only come from the Knesset itself as lawmakers enjoy parliamentary immunity from such restrictions by any other law enforcement bodies. The ban applies to all prisoners held for national security offenses, whether Palestinian or Israeli.
Asked about the case Tuesday, Erdan denounced Ghattas as a terrorist supporter whose absence from the Knesset would be no loss.
“This is a member of Knesset who just three-four months ago held a moment of silence for the memory of the murderers in the recent terror wave in Jerusalem, who joins flotillas of identification with Gaza, who calls [former president] Shimon Peres the greatest of war criminals, who sneaks onto the Temple Mount just to provoke. It won’t be such a disaster if he isn’t in the Knesset — even if he isn’t convicted [in the current case],” the minister said.
As he entered the police building Tuesday, Ghattas told reporters, “I will come out with my head held high, and in the end it will turn out that they made a mountain out of a molehill.”
Calling the accusations “a political witch hunt,” he said, “We have become accustomed to questioning like this — it is all just to harm our struggle [for the Palestinian cause].”
Daka is serving a 37-year sentence for the abduction and murder of 19-year-old soldier Moshe Tamam, who was abducted by a group of Arab Israelis as he got off a bus a few minutes away from his home near Netanya in August 1984. His body was located four days later – he had been shot, and his face was badly mutilated.
Four Arab Israelis affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were later convicted for the attack, including Daka, who in 1987 was handed a life sentence for his involvement (in 2012, then-president Peres chiseled the sentence down to 37 years).
Daka made headlines in 1999 after he became the first Palestinian prisoner permitted to wed while incarcerated, and for his protracted legal battle for a conjugal furlough. Among his writings are a book, “Redefining Torture,” and columns for various publications. Daka has also legally disavowed his former membership with the PFLP and denies all the charges against him. His life story inspired a play — “A Parallel Time” — which was performed at the Al-Midan theater in the northern city of Haifa, drawing a furious response from both Tamam’s relatives and the Culture Ministry.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.