The head of the Knesset’s Joint (Arab) List has distanced himself from faction colleague Basel Ghattas, saying suspicions the legislator smuggled phones and other information to security prisoners “are not acceptable to us.”
Ghattas was arrested on Friday after preemptively giving up his parliamentary immunity amid accusations that he gave cellphones, SIM cards and coded messages to Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israel.
A court ordered that he remain in custody until at least Monday.
In an interview with Channel 2 television on Saturday night, Joint List head Ayman Odeh said that while his party was committed to ensuring that Palestinian security prisoners enjoyed the same rights as Israeli security prisoners, and were able to talk to their families, this should only be achieved through legal means.
“We have to work through democratic means, so, in any case, whether it is telephones or notes, we have our general line. He did something wrong and it is not acceptable to us,” he said.
However, he noted that in conversations he had had with Ghattas, he had only admitted taking in notes.
Odeh stressed that he did not believe that Ghattas intended to harm Israel’s security. “I know the person. He always openly declares, in every forum, that he is against harming civilians,” Odeh said. “He says the same thing behind closed doors. I don’t think he wanted to harm security.”
Odeh hails from the communist Hadash party while Ghattas is one of three MKs from the hard-line Balad. The two parties were forced to band together with other factions after the electoral threshold in the Knesset was raised to 3.25 percent.
Ghattas’s arrest came immediately after a second round of police questioning under caution in as many days, and just hours after the lawmaker waived his parliamentary immunity.
Police reportedly arrested him over concerns he might flee the country, like Balad founder 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.
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.
According to Hebrew media reports, Ghattas allegedly passed as many as 15 cellphones and several SIM cards to the inmates, who are serving their sentences in Ketziot Prison, south of Beersheba.
One of the prisoners that Ghattas is alleged to have met with during a Sunday visit to Ketziot is Walid Daka, who is serving a 37-year sentence for the 1984 abduction and murder of 19-year-old IDF soldier Moshe Tamam. The second inmate, Basel Ben Sulieman Bezre, is serving a 15-year sentence for terror offenses.
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.
Ghattas, a Christian Arab from the Galilee, 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.
Haaretz newspaper said that the police told the court the MK refused during questioning to explain how he came to obtain the phones or who asked him to make contact with the two security prisoners.
“Material from the investigation shows Ghattas used the immunity granted to him under the law when he visited two security prisoners — one serving life and the other 15 years,” a police official told the court, according to Haaretz.
“Ghattas was documented taking out envelopes and passing them to the prisoners. Before going to the prison, the MK coordinated his arrival with an inmate, who was using a cellphone that was previously smuggled in. Ghattas refuses to say who gave him the cellphones to transfer to the security prisoners.”
Ghattas was also suspected of handing “intelligence information” to one of two prisoners in encoded notes, Channel 2 said last week. The notes reportedly contained information from other security prisoners.
The MK insisted in court there was no truth to the claim that he handed over encrypted documents, which the judge accepted.
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.
Ghattas’s Balad Palestinian nationalist party, which is part of the Joint (Arab) List faction in the Knesset, has slammed the arrest as political persecution.
“Balad views the arrest of MK Ghattas as a step that is unprecedented in its gravity, and that has no justification,” it said in a statement Friday morning, the Walla news website reported.
“The arrest of MK Ghattas is a vindictive move carried out in an atmosphere of growing hostility and wild incitement toward the Arab public, spearheaded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Balad will stand firm against this attack, protect the rights and status of MK Basel Ghattas and not let him be slandered. [We] will defend the legitimate political activity of the Arab minority,” it said.
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