Cruelty spurred me to aid Palestinian prisoners — ousted lawmaker

Basel Ghattas smiles at camera while sitting down in courtroom

Basel Ghattas sits at the Rishon Lezion court near Tel Aviv on 23 December, one day after his arrest on suspicion of smuggling mobile phones to Palestinian prisoners.

Oren Ziv ActiveStills

Basel Ghattas, a former member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, was convicted in March on a slew of charges after being caught smuggling mobile phones and documents to so-called security prisoners in Israeli detention.

As a result of a plea bargain, Ghattas – a parliamentarian for the Joint List, a coalition of Palestinian parties in Israel that includes his party, Balad – now faces two years in jail and, depending on the presiding judge, awaits to hear the length of any probation, whether he will pay a fine and if the conviction will impact any possible political role in the future.

The sentencing is due this Sunday.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ghattas told The Electronic Intifada that he had no regrets over actions he undertook for humanitarian and conscientious reasons. He also said the current situation for Palestinian citizens of Israel was rapidly deteriorating as Israeli society moves ever rightward.

“You’ll find a less and less heterogeneous society among Israeli Jews these days,” Ghattas said. “What historically was the Left, the labor movement that actually created the country, is being weakened all the time. Within the Israeli consensus, right-wing values are prevailing.”

Inhumane treatment

In December, Ghattas was caught trying to smuggle envelopes containing 12 phones, 16 SIM cards, two cell phone chargers and a pair of earphones into Ketziot, a notorious desert prison that was first opened in 1988 during the first intifada, was closed again in 1995 as part of the Oslo accords and then reopened again in 2002, during the second intifada.

Ghattas insisted that passing along the envelopes had been a humanitarian gesture and a response to what he called the inhumane conditions in which prisoners are held.

“I am fully engaged with the issue of security prisoners,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Over the past four years [since becoming a member of the Knesset], I have seen the inhumane conditions they live in.”

Israel classifies prisoners into two: criminal and “security” prisoners. The latter are almost exclusively Palestinian, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, and are defined as those who have committed crimes where the motive was “nationalistic” and which harmed or intended to harm state security.

Once classified as security prisoners, their treatment is different to the rest of the prison population and also to that of Jewish security prisoners. Notably, their ability to communicate with the outside world is severely restricted.

They have no access to phones or other means of communication and are allowed only visits from the closest of relatives. They are banned from prison furloughs or even petitioning for early release.

The installation, in February, of radiators in security prisoners’ cells, only came after years of lobbying by rights groups.

The few Jewish security prisoners avoid the more stringent of these restrictions, particularly on communication, since these are applied to those with links or suspected links to “hostile organizations.” No Jewish organization is on this list.

Such treatment, said Ghattas, citing the case of one prisoner who is not allowed to see a sister, one of his two remaining closest relatives, because she is from his father’s first marriage and doesn’t count as a first-degree relative, amounts to cruelty and spurred him to act.

Uncharted territory

“These unjustified measures are taken only against Palestinian security prisoners,” Ghattas said. As legislator, he said, he had brought the issue up repeatedly in parliament, in relevant committees and with authorities. But to no avail.

“The extent of this cruelty, of the injustice, is what made me try to help them.”

Once charged, Ghattas found himself in uncharted territory. He was the first sitting member of Israel’s parliament to be stripped of immunity during an investigation, a privilege that is usually lost only once an indictment is filed with a court.

He was the first to be arrested during the investigation and, also unprecedented, the first to face a list of charges by Israel’s attorney general without first having been granted a hearing.

“Almost everything that was done to me was unprecedented in the history of Israel,” said Ghattas. “I have been treated very differently from Jewish Knesset members or ministers who were accused of much more serious charges and were later convicted and sent to jail for many years.”

He cited Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister who was eventually convicted on corruption charges, as well as Moshe Katsav, a former president who served five years in prison for rape and sexual harassment.

Ghattas also pointed to Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, who is continuing in his post under a cloud of corruption allegations, at least some of which could lead to indictment.

“[Netanyahu] is suspected of very serious issues of taking bribes from friends but he has not been arrested for even one hour. And as a free person, as prime minister, he can do everything possible to disrupt the investigation.”

After much hesitation, Ghattas eventually agreed to the plea bargain, which saw some charges dropped but also saw him plead guilty to one count of acting in circumstances that could lead, knowingly or unknowingly, to support for a terrorist act.

“It was really not easy for me to accept this,” he said, but in the end he had little choice: the alternative would have risked a longer prison sentence.

Sentencing on Sunday will determine the length of any probation served after the two-year prison sentence is up, as well as whether his actions will be considered “moral turpitude,” which might affect his ability to hold political office in the future.

Unequal before the law

Because of his resignation, Ghattas did not also become the first sitting parliamentarian to test out a new law – passed last July – that could have seen fellow lawmakers vote on his expulsion. The so-called suspension bill empowers lawmakers to oust a colleague on grounds of incitement to racism or support for violence against the state.

Ghattas was in little doubt that the law would have been used against him had he not resigned. The law is widely seen as targeting Palestinian lawmakers, a view Ghattas agreed with.

It stipulates that 90 parliamentarians have to agree on expulsion, and, Ghattas commented, who can “imagine a situation where 90 Knesset members come together unless the one being removed is Palestinian?”

“We had an old joke,” he said. “The only Palestinians enjoying equality in Israel were the Arab Knesset members. In my case this really is a joke. Even Arab Knesset members don’t enjoy equal rights and even immunity doesn’t protect them when the establishment decides to persecute them.”

And that law is symptomatic of a concerted effort by the current government to make “the gap between Arabs and Jews as wide as possible,” he said.

“This government is the most radical, most fanatic,” Ghattas said. This became very apparent on the last election day, when Netanyahu warned supporters that Palestinian citizens were turning out “in droves.”

“Every week he speaks against us. He has created a new reason for his voters to be fearful. He did that against Iran for many years. Now he [has] invented a new enemy: the Arab citizens of Israel.”

This “incitement” is reflected in what Ghattas said was an “unprecedented number of anti-Arab, anti-democratic laws” being proposed in parliament, including a bill to ban the adhan, or call to prayer, because of noise pollution.

That bill, he said, has nothing to do with noise pollution, for which there are perfectly adequate laws already. Rather, this is “a message that Israel does not tolerate the adhan in general, which is part of the history of the country and the indigenous culture of the country.”

Nevertheless, as a politician it was his duty to remain positive. And, he said, Israel could not continue on the path it was on, one unique to what he called “colonial-settler states.”

“Such countries do not actually leave their colonial projects and become normal states, unless they are punished or pay a price for their continued occupation and settlement.”

A reckoning, he said, will come either in the form of a violent conflict – “Luckily, the Palestinians know that their way now to liberation does not go through such a bloody confrontation” – or through international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

“At a certain stage, Israel has to face this reality or it will end being treated like Iran – certain international mechanisms have to be put in place to force Israel to live up to its duties and responsibilities.”

Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.