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Israel’s Central Election Committee, a partisan body with the power to disqualify political parties from the forthcoming election, questioned this week the right of one of the three main Arab parties to contest the election. The committee is dominated by politicians from rightwing Zionist parties.
The committee held a session on Tuesday February 28 in which it considered barring the joint list of the United Arab List and Taal, led by Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur and Ahmed Tibi, from the standing. Several parties represented on the committee, including Likud and the National Religious Party, submitted a petition against the Arab party based on the claim that its platform denies Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”. The ban was rejected by a wafer-thin majority of 18 votes to 16.
The hearing came after several weeks of well-publicised investigations and physical assaults on Arab MKs and politicians, a phenomenon that has become a particular ritual around the time of elections. Three of the eight Arab MKs belonging to non-Zionist parties were investigated by the police last month, and two assaulted by the security forces during peaceful demonstrations.
On Sunday February 26 Mohammed Barakeh, leader of the list of the joint Arab and Jewish Democratic Front for Peace and Equality party (known as Hadash in Hebrew), became the lastest MK to be investigated by the security services. He reportedly left after the interrogator started the interview with “Listen, sweety”.
Barakeh called the interrogator’s tone “ill-mannered”. A police spokesman said the use of the word had been a “slip of the tongue”.
The MK was questioned over his participation in a peaceful Jewish and Arab demonstration in the West Bank village of Bilin against the building of Israel’s wall on the villager’s land, in preparation for its effective annexation to Israel. Barakeh had refused to attend a first interrogation when he was called to Binyamina police station, which is inside the occupied West Bank.
At least 10 demonstrators, including Barakeh, were injured when a paramilitary unit of the Massad, usually used to disperse prison riots, was called in. One of its officers, Barakeh claims, fired a stun grenade from close range at him. When the MK complained about the incident, police in turn accused him of assaulting Massada officers.
After leaving the interrogation, Barakeh said he would not return for questioning and challenged the police to test their allegations in court. He says he has video evidence showing that he, not the police, was attacked.
Questioned by Israeli reporters about why he had not reported the assault to Mahash, the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department, Barakeh’s assistant, Barhoum Jeraisi, said the MK had no faith in it. “The history of the PID with Arabs is very black,” he said, referring to its consistent pattern of closing files on policemen accused of assaulting Arab citizens. It was revealed last week that, despite a clear conflict of interest, promotions among Justice Ministry investigators have been overseen by the national police commander.
The attack on Barakeh has disturbing echoes of an assault he suffered seven years ago, when he was repeatedly hit with a baton by a policeman during a protest against land confiscations in the Arab town of Tamra. When Barakeh complained, the policeman accused him of violence.
Based on the policeman’s testimony, an investigation of the MK was opened and proceedings by the Attorney General to indict him begun. The charge was dropped only after the MK provided video footage proving that he had been attacked. The policeman was neither disciplined nor prosecuted for the assault or for lying.
A report, Silencing Dissent, published by the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) in October 2002, found that in the previous two years seven of the nine MKs belonging to Arab parties (including Hadash) in that parliament had needed hospital treatment after assaults by the security forces. In addition, a total of 25 investigations had been launched against them.
Barakeh is not alone in being questioned by the police. Taleb As-Sana’a, of the United Arab List, and Azmi Bishara, of the National Democratic Assembly party, were both interrogated last month by the International Serious Crimes Unit about trips they made to Syria and Lebanon respectively. The investigation was ordered by the Attorney-General, Menachem Mazuz, on the grounds that the two MKs had entered an “enemy country”.
Although both have diplomatic passports, such visits have become a grey area after the law was changed to require that MKs seek permission from the Interior Ministry before visiting enemy states. Arab MKs have claimed that the Ministry either does not reply to their requests or automatically rejects them without a hearing.
The law was changed after a trial judge overturned charges brought against Bishara in 2001 for travelling to Syria and ruled that the MK had diplomatic immunity.
The Attorney General’s investigation of Bishara opens the threat of renewed legal action against him, only days after the Supreme Court belatedly ended a five-year indictment by dismissing a second charge from the same trial. The MK was accused of supporting “armed struggle” by a terrorist organisation after he noted in two separate speeches Hizbullah’s success in ending Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon.
To enable the 2001 double prosecution, the Knesset - on the advice of the Attorney General and the Shin Bet secret service - stripped Bishara of his parliamentary immunity, the first time this had been done to an Israeli politician for making political statements. In their ruling last month, the judges agreed that Bishara had supported a terrorist organisation but by a two-to-one majority they concluded that he had not condoned armed struggle.
The hearing this week against the United Arab List and Taal followed a press conference in Nazareth held by Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur. Several Israeli newspapers and television channels reported him as saying that he supported Israel becoming an Islamic state. Subsequently, the media widely compared his party with Hamas.
Sarsur says he was misquoted, a claim later substantiated by Ha’aretz reporter Yoav Stern, and that he was referring to Arab countries in the region, not Israel, joining together to become a single Islamic state. In a statement to the election committee, he reiterated his position: “It must be made clear that I was deeply disturbed by the coverage of the press conference. To remove any doubt, I am opposed to the establishment of an Islamic state or an alternative government.”
Sarsur’s legal representative, Marwan Dalal of the Adalah legal centre for Arab minority rights, observed: “The inaccuracy of the … media sources is not surprising and, sadly, common among journalists in Israel.”
At the last general election, the Central Election Committee disqualified two Arab candidates, Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, from running, as well as banning Bishara’s party, the National Democratic Assembly. Its decision, however, was overturned on appeal to the courts.
Contact: The Arab Association for Human Rights on +972-4-656-1923, and Adalah on +972-4-950-1610.