MK Basel Ghattas will serve two years for smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners. That’s a longer sentence than the one handed down to an Elor Azaria, who executed an incapacitated Palestinian.
Congratulations are in order to the attorney general and the Knesset for the latest Arab they managed be put up on the cross. Palestinian MK Basel Ghattas (Balad), who was accused of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners, agreed to sign a plea bargain according to which he will admit to committing an act that could lead either directly or indirectly to acts of terrorism, resign from the Knesset, and serve two years in prison.
This story takes me back to a decade ago, when I hosted a daily radio show on a Palestinian-Israeli radio station. As part of my program, I would often bring on Ramzi, a Palestinian administrative detainee who would speak to us directly from prison. The conversations with him would mostly revolve around the difficult conditions facing Palestinian security prisoners, as well as the abuse they face by prison authorities. Ramzi was released from prison after his administrative detention was extended three times. During the years that we stayed in touch after his release, he was mostly busy rehabilitating his health and family life. He left prison a shadow of his former self, never knowing what he was accused of or why he was arrested.
There are two issues at hand here: first, the inhumane conditions of security prisoners in Israeli prisons, far from the eye of the public’s eye or interest; second, the fact that there is a large number of cellphones circulating in Israel’s “security” prison wings. A human rights activist once told me that at the end of a routine visit to a number of prisons, a top official in the Israel Prison Service (IPS) told him, off the record, that prison officials are not only well aware that security prisoners have cellphones, they believe their presence is a good thing. After all, cellphones function as a pressure valve for prisoners, while providing Israel’s security services with a convenient way of monitoring their connections with the outside world. Anyone who denies the existence of this hush-hush deal is simply lying.
Ghattas never stood a chance
The simple fact is that the Ghattas saga has absolutely nothing to do with state security, but rather with a crusade to delegitimize Balad and paint the party as a security threat, as it prepares to kick it out of the Knesset. It began with the repeated attempts to disqualify Balad and its representatives from participating in national elections, went on to labeling its MKs “terrorists,” continued with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman calling to revoke their citizenship, and culminated with night raids and arrests targeting dozens of party members as part of an ongoing investigation into party finances.
As a rule, the State of Israel is at its most creative when it comes to persecuting Palestinians — both citizens or subjects under occupation. It is enough to glance at the list of absurd laws that the Knesset has passed over the last few years. But one must admit: in Ghattas’ case, the state has managed to break even its own record.
It began with the trap set by the IPS and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Erdan, after all, approved Ghattas’ visit to Ketziot Prison after preventing him from doing so for months before. With preliminary intelligence in their hands, the authorities preferred to make sure Ghattas fell for the trap. All it took was for the establishment to cross a few red lines, including the attorney general’s decision to ask the Knesset Ethics Committee to circumvent standard procedure and rescind Ghattas’ parliamentary immunity in order to arrest a sitting member of Knesset. This paved the way for his indictment.
So what options are left to an Arab member of Knesset who faces an entire system that has so clearly marked him as a target? Either he signs a plea bargain that, even in its “lighter” version that includes baseless clauses, or he refuses the plea bargain and takes the case to court.
One can presume that this dilemma was on Ghattas’ mind before he chose — “with a heavy heart” — to go for the plea bargain. Considering the alternative, one can understand why he chose this option.
Going to court may have given Ghattas the opportunity to turn his case into a symbolic one, especially when considering that the issue of security prisoners is a top priority for Palestinian society. Doing so, however, would mean paying a heavy personal and political price. There is no doubt that such a trial would be the nail in the coffin for Balad. A series of baseless security-based clauses crammed into the indictment sheet would set the stage for even more dangerous incitement against both Balad and the greater Arab public. It seems Ghattas had hoped to prevent this from happening, and justly so. And let’s not forget about a recently-passed law that would see him kicked out of the Knesset — a severe precedent that was avoided through the plea bargain.
According to police statistics provided following a freedom of information request, between 2011-2015, 91.5 percent of the 36,902 arrests made for “security offenses” targeted non-Jews. Out of the 22,918 indictments filed following these arrests, 94.8 percent were served to non-Jews. Among the prison population, Palestinian citizens of Israel more than double their representative size within the Israeli population.
In light of these statistics, what kind of justice could MK Ghattas expect from a legal system whose main role is to entrench oppression against Palestinians, while occasionally adjusting its intensity? If the system has invested so much in taking down Ghattas, how far is it willing to go to try and obtain the most dramatic conviction possible?
One can believe that Ghattas signed a plea bargain — one that punishes him with a heavier sentence than Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who executed an incapacitated man. But in a reality where the chances that a Palestinian will see justice in an Israeli court are infinitesimal, a plea bargain is likely the lesser of two evils.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.