Israel Police said on Sunday that there is substantial evidence against an Arab lawmaker suspected of undermining state security by smuggling at least 15 mobile phones to two Palestinian security prisoners in an Israeli prison.
Basel Ghattas, a lawmaker from the Balad Party, which is part of the Knesset’s Joint (Arab) List, will be investigated for a suspected breach of security, Balad said, adding that the Lahav 433 National Crime Unit summoned Ghattas for questioning.
Ghattas is suspected of smuggling the mobile phone to two Palestinian security prisoners at Ketziot prison, south of Beersheba in southern Israel, Channel 2 reported. One of the two prisoners, both members of Fatah, is serving a 37-year term for murder.
Police told Channel 2 that they believe Ghattas may have also, on at least one occasion, smuggled in SIM cards for the prisoners, hidden in hollowed-out book.
“At least one of the times [he came to the prison], he held a book with the pages missing, instead there were SIM cards, cellphones and so on,” said a source in the police force, adding that he may have also smuggled in documents and that the evidence against Ghattas was substantial.
Ghattas visited prisoners in Ketziot Prison Sunday. According to Israeli media reports, investigators asked to speak with Ghattas following the visit but he reportedly refused citing his immunity as a lawmaker. The suspicions are not related specifically to Sunday’s visit, Haaretz reported citing Ghattas’ office.
A former commissioner of the Israel Prison Service, Haim Glick, told Channel 2 that while lawmakers may have immunity and comprehensive searches are not performed on them, prisoners do get searched after a visit and that was likely how the cellphones were found.
“I don’t understand how he thought he wouldn’t get caught. When an inmate returns from a visit, he is searched and that is how, I believe, the Prison Service guards discovered the phones,” he said.
Glick said that if all the allegations turn out to be true, Ghattas could face jail time, “unless he decides to flee like his cousin [former MK] Azmi Bishara,” a reference to the founder of the Balad Party, who fled Israel in 2007 during an investigation over accusations that he passed information to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
In response to the allegations, Ghattas said that the investigation was “another chapter in the political witch-hunt against leaders of the Arab community and against political activity.”
“Visits to prisoners by Arab Knesset members are conducted in coordination with the Prisons Service and with the approval of the Public Security Ministry. I have nothing to hide, I will continue to represent the Arab public through legitimate political activity,” he said in a statement.
“It is clear that the police are insisting on continuing their political pursuit of Balad MKs and senior party members,” Ghattas said earlier Sunday. “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.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday that if the suspicions against Ghattas are true, “then this constitutes a serious offense against the security of the state and citizens of Israel. Whoever harms state security will be severely punished and will not be allowed to serve in the Knesset,”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in a post on Facebook that the suspicions against Ghattas are “more proof that the Joint List is really a joint list of spies and traitors.” Liberman also said: “I will continue to act so that not only will they not serve in the Knesset, but also won’t be citizens of Israel.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan is considering halting all MKs’ visits to security prisoners, Channel 2 said.
Opposition MK Tzipi Livni, from the Zionist Union party, said she had “complete trust in the security establishment and the police carry out the investigation” against Ghattas.
“Any attempt to depict suspected security breaches as representative of the whole Arab community in unacceptable,” she said through a spokesman.
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.
The Joint List holds 13 of the 120 seats in parliament and is the third largest bloc in the legislature.