Netanyahu, ministers blast Arab MK suspected of security offense
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Liberman says Ghattas's party is one of 'spies and traitors'

Netanyahu, ministers blast Arab MK suspected of security offense

PM says Basel Ghattas, questioned over phone-smuggling to Palestinian prisoners, should be 'punished severely' if found guilty

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 18, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / AMIR COHEN)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 18, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / AMIR COHEN)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in Sunday on the case of a Joint (Arab) List MK suspected of security offenses, saying that if he is convicted, Basel Ghattas should be “punished severely.”

“Should the suspicions against MK Ghattas turn out to be true, it is a severe crime against the security of the state and citizens of Israel,” he tweeted. “Anyone who harms state security should be punished severely and must not serve in the Knesset.”

Police launched an investigation into Ghattas over suspicions he undermined state security during meetings with prisoners, smuggling them mobile telephones.

For his part, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the suspicions against Ghattas shored up his campaign to strip several Arab Knesset members of their citizenship.

Those suspicions, Liberman said, are “no more than another link in a chain of evidence that the Joint List is actually the spy and traitor list… We will continue in our efforts to ensure that not only will they not be part of Israel’s Knesset, but that they will no longer be citizens of the State of Israel.”

Ghattas, a lawmaker from the Balad Party, which is part of the Joint List faction, will be investigated for a suspected breach of security, Balad said Sunday, adding that the Lahav 433 National Crime Unit summoned him for questioning.

He is suspected of smuggling 15 small mobile phones to two Fatah inmates, one of whom is serving 37 years for murder. Police were waiting for him when he emerged from a jail visit on Sunday, Channel 2 reported. He was asked to accompany them immediately, but refused, citing his parliamentary immunity.

Ghattas said on Sunday evening that “Balad is being deliberately targeted” by the Israeli authorities, that he has “nothing to hide,” and that he would present himself for questioning as necessary.

Joint Arab List member Basel Ghattas seen at the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint Arab List member Basel Ghattas seen at the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he was considering halting all MKs’ visits to security prisoners in the wake of the incident due to the “danger [they pose] to state security.”

“No more!” Erdan said in a statement. “The suspicions against Bassel Ghattas are among the most severe we’re ever encountered, and were he not an MK he’d likely be under arrest tonight.”

Meanwhile, Nibin Abu Rahmoun, the woman who will head the party’s Knesset list in the next elections, was also questioned by police, Haaretz news site reported.

The investigation is being carried out based on information received from the Prisons Service linking Ghatas to one or multiple security prisoners in a manner that gives rise to suspicions that he committed offenses threatening state security.

Ghattas dismissed the accusations as part of a conspiracy against his party, claiming he had not met with any security prisoners for more than two months, Haaretz reported.

“It is clear that the police are insisting on continuing their political pursuit of Balad MKs and senior party members,” he said. “This behavior shows a policy of political revenge which has not frightened us in the past and will not frighten us in the future either.”

Balad, an acronym for the Arabic for National Democratic Assembly, is part of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab Israeli parties in parliament. The party is especially critical of Israeli policies and one of its members of parliament, Hanin Zoabi, has frequently angered Israeli officials, notably when she took part in a notorious flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev participates in a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee on November 30, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev participates in a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee on November 30, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev excoriated Balad as “the fifth column party” and called its members “Trojan horses.” In a statement invoking Zoabi, as well as Balad’s disgraced founder, Azmi Bishara, she accused Ghattas of colluding “with terrorists in prison” and called on the attorney general to “see the investigation through to its completion.”

Currently, there appears to be no direct connection between the Ghattas investigation and previous accusations against the Arab party.

Balad officials were investigated for financial irregularities in September. At the time the party denounced the probe as an attempt to silence Israel’s Arab minority, which accounts for 17.5 percent of the country’s eight million population and is largely supportive of the Palestinian cause.

Party MK Said Nafa served a year-long prison sentence after being convicted of illegally traveling to Syria.

Balad’s three Knesset members triggered outrage among Jewish Israelis earlier this year when they met relatives of Palestinians whom authorities say were killed while carrying out attacks.

In response, parliament passed a controversial law in July allowing the expulsion of MKs deemed guilty of racial incitement or supporting armed struggle against Israel.

Bishara, the party’s founder, fled Israel in 2007 amid allegations he advised Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and directed its rocket fire against Israel during a month-long war the previous year.

The Joint List holds 13 of the 120 seats in parliament and is the third largest bloc in the legislature.

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