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Police recommend fraud charges for three Arab MKs

Balad party rejects ‘witch hunt’ against Hanin Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka and Juma Azbarga, accused of misrepresenting source of campaign money

Former Balad party MKs Hanin Zoabi, right, and Jamal Zahalka, center, both of the Joint (Arab) List Faction, seen at the court hearing of fellow faction member MK Basel Ghattas at the Rehovot Magistrate's Court, January 5, 2017. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
Former Balad party MKs Hanin Zoabi, right, and Jamal Zahalka, center, both of the Joint (Arab) List Faction, seen at the court hearing of fellow faction member MK Basel Ghattas at the Rehovot Magistrate's Court, January 5, 2017. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

Three Arab lawmakers from the Balad party should face fraud and other graft charges over alleged financial irregularities, police said Tuesday

Indictments were recommended against MKs Hanin Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka, and Juma Azbarga regarding donations the party received during the 2013 elections and party spending during the 2015 elections. Police recommendations have no legal weight, however; the decision to press charges lies with the State Prosecutor.

The Balad party called the development “a political witch hunt.”

Party officials are suspected of fraudulently accepting funds, forgery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust, police said.

The development came at the completion of an investigation into the transactions; the case has been sent for review by the State Prosecutor.

Balad, which holds three Knesset seats, is one of the four parties comprising the Joint (Arab) List faction, which holds 13 of the 120 seats in parliament.

Joint (Arab) List MK Juma Azbarga. (Screen capture: YouTube)

An investigation was opened in 2016 by the police Lahav 433 fraud unit after a state comptroller report found issues with the party’s donations and expenses.

Dozens of suspects were detained for questioning in September 2016, including the party’s accountant.

The suspected lawmakers were all questioned, as well as former Balad MK Basel Ghattas, who is in serving two years in prison for smuggling mobile phones to Palestinian security prisoners.

Police suspect that for several years senior party members systematically deceived authorities and the state comptroller by misrepresenting the source of millions of shekels the party received.

“This is a dangerous escalation in the political witch hunt against the leaders of the Arab public, a continuation of the wild incitement of politicians against the Arab parties,” Balad said in a statement.

The party noted that the lawmakers are not suspected of taking any money for themselves, and suggested police were seeking a counterweight to possible recommendations for indictments against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two corruption cases.

“Balad rejects the suspicions against the party and its members. The police are trying to make an administrative matter, or alleged financial irregularities during elections, into a criminal matter in order to balance recommendations in the issue of Netanyahu. No one in Balad is suspected or has been questioned about benefits or money taken for himself. Balad is confident the suspicions will prove to be groundless.”

In September 2016, arrests were made against more than 20 activists and members of Balad, with police saying at the time there were suspicions that senior members and activists had created a mechanism to “systematically misrepresent” the origins of millions of shekels donated to the party to finance its operations in recent years.

Joint (Arab) List Knesset members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R), Basel Ghattas (2R) and Ayman Odeh (C) at the weekly faction meeting in the Knesset, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The party allegedly reported large donations from “various sources in Israel and abroad” as if they were hundreds of smaller contributions made within Israel.

Balad, which advocates for a binational state for Palestinians and Israelis, has been dogged by controversy.

In April 2017, the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court accepted a plea bargain reached between state prosecutors and Ghattas, who was convicted of exploiting his position to sneak cellphones and notes to convicted Palestinian terrorists.

After accepting the deal, the court handed down a two-year prison term to Ghattas, as well as 18 months’ probation and a NIS 120,000 ($33,000) fine.

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