Why Palestinian prisoners have the right to cell phones

Basel Ghattas, a Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament, has been indicted for allegedly smuggling cell phones to prisoners. 

Oren Ziv

Benjamin Netanyahu claimed not so long ago that Palestinian citizens of Israel have “equal rights and equal duties.” The markedly different way that he and a Palestinian lawmaker have been treated over the past few weeks exposes how dishonest that claim was.

Despite being under investigation for alleged corruption, Netanyahu has been able to continue serving as Israel’s prime minister. A bill aimed at protecting him from further probes has even been drafted by a representative of Likud, the largest government party.

Like Netanyahu, Basel Ghattas is a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Unlike Netanyahu, he has already been punished for accusations made against him.

The accusation that Ghattas smuggled cell phones to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has led to him being suspended from the Knesset for six months.

A push is now underway to permanently remove Ghattas from the parliament. Zeev Elkin, a government minister, has requested that Knesset members sign an appeal to have Ghattas expelled.

Under a law which entered into force during 2016, elected representatives may be kicked out of the Knesset if a vote is approved by 90 of its members. Adalah, a group representing Palestinians in Israel, has complained that the law enables members of the Knesset to club together so they can conduct “field-style court martials” against political opponents.

Ghattas has argued that Netanyahu and other senior figures in the Israeli government “want a photo of an Arab MK [member of Knesset] in handcuffs.”


The allegations that have been made in public against Ghattas indicate that he is being persecuted simply because he tried to assist Palestinian prisoners.

According to Israeli press reports, he delivered a total of 12 cell phones to Basel Bizra, who is currently being held in Ketziot, a jail in the Naqab (Negev) region.

Bizra is a member of Fatah, one of the largest Palestinian parties, and has previously been a spokesperson for Fatah prisoners.

Cell phones cannot be considered weapons or as dangerous items. The idea that bringing modern communications to people locked away by an apartheid state could be a serious crime – or anything more than an administrative offense – is risible.

The United Nations has explicitly recognized that prisoners have the right to communicate with the outside world. If Ghattas did indeed smuggle cell phones to prisoners, then he was arguably defending their basic rights.

Yet Israel’s political hierarchy has rushed to depict Ghattas as a felon. First, a committee in the Knesset voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution last month. That paved the way for his arrest on 22 December.

Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister, pounced on the arrest to attack the Joint Arab List, the grouping of parties to which Ghattas belongs.

“This is just one more proof that the Joint List is in fact the joint list of spies and traitors,” Lieberman wrote on Facebook.

Danger to public?

Last week, the Israeli government formally indicted Ghattas. The charges against him include deceit and breach of trust by a public servant and aggravated fraud.

The Israeli state has also appealed against a recent court ruling that Ghattas may be released from house arrest. According to Israeli prosecutors, there is a suspicion Ghattas could “endanger public safety.”

The treatment of Ghattas is part of a series of attempts to disenfranchise Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The Joint List against which Lieberman has thundered was actually established in response to such disenfranchisement.

In 2014, the Knesset raised the electoral threshold required for a party to win representation. The new criteria forced a union among Palestinian-led parties, galvanizing Palestinian voters and leading the Joint List to win the third largest share of seats in the Knesset in the 2015 general election.

Ghattas is not the first Palestinian lawmaker to be suspended from the Knesset. In 2014, Haneen Zoabi was banned for six months for alleged “incitement.”

The hierarchy decided to punish her over remarks she made in a radio interview about the kidnapping of three Israeli youths, who were later found dead. Zoabi made clear that she disapproved of the kidnapping but declined to describe it as “terrorism.”

While Palestinian lawmakers can be chastised simply for expressing their views, Jewish Israeli politicians may defend serious human rights abuses without fear of censure.

A day before Israel indicted Ghattas last week, Benjamin Netanyahu supported calls for the pardoning of an Israeli soldier who shot dead an injured Palestinian.

That Netanyahu suffered no consequences underscores the absurdity of his professed commitment to equal rights.

Additional research by Charlotte Silver.




prisoners in canada, the usa and europe are not entitled to cell-phones. they are also not entitled to communication with those outside of prison, other than their legal representatives. smuggling contraband into a prison is a felony offence, regardless of the station of the smuggler.

it is quite stunning how the crux of your argument hinges on this factual error.

David Cronin's picture

Since when was the US - a country that resorts to mass incarceration - a great defender of prisoner rights? Or most European countries? When prisoners are prevented from having contact with the outside world, they are denied rights that the UN has recognized. 


Prisoners are not being denied their rights to communicate with the outside world. They are enetiled to supervised visits with family and friends, letters, phone-calls and other distance-correspondence that can be monitored, and unsupervised (however secure) visitation with their legal council.

Lack of a cell-phone of ability to check one's Facebook profile while incarcerated is not a violation of one's UN enshrined human rights. If anything, by suggesting this is a rights violation, you are in fact diminishing the very real struggle that human-rights defenders, pioneers and, for lack of a better term, martyrs, have fought and continue to fight for.

David Cronin's picture

You appear to know little about Palestinian prisoners. Israel frequently prevents or obstructs Palestinians from visiting family members in prison.  So Palestinian prisoners are denied the right to communicate with the outside world. 


having actually been to those prisons, I can assure you that I know full-well about the treatment of Palestinian terrorists and terrorism suspects in Israeli custody. I also know that in-person visitation is not a "right" but a privilege, and one that is not enshrined anywhere. Moreover, incarceration in a Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian or Lebanese facility is far worse than being held by Israel, for the same crimes - that I have no source material as my exposure to those facilities is television documentaries and other 3rd-party reports; but having seen the general state-run facilities in those countries for the non-incarcerated, I can believe it.

David Cronin's picture

Your use of the term “terrorists” to describe Palestinian prisoners indicates that you have no concern for their rights or empathy for their struggle. Besides, you have posted anonymously. Where is the proof that you have visited Israeli prisons?