Bid to expel Arab Knesset member an ominous sign of what’s to come

After a year in which the government incited against Arab society and the media pandered to the Right’s agenda, the attempt to expel Joint List MK Basel Ghattas points to a worrying future.

By Abed Abu Shehada

Joint List MK Basel Ghattas seen at the weekly Joint List meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint List MK Basel Ghattas seen at the weekly Joint List meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When the Knesset passed the so-called “expulsion law” last summer, widely seen as targeting Arab lawmakers, many believed it didn’t matter, because no vote on expelling a member of the Knesset would reach the two-thirds majority (90 MKs) needed. They also said it was the media’s role to be objective and to cover the news reliably, so as not to become a tool in the hands of the government against its opponents.

But in the past few days, the exact opposite has happened: the media has mobilized and created a wall-to-wall consensus along with lawmakers from the Left and Right, who are working to expel Joint List MK Basel Ghattas — accused of smuggling cell phones to Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails — from the Knesset. On Wednesday, the Knesset House Committee voted to strip Ghattas of his parliamentary immunity. They are setting an example for the rest of the Arab Knesset members — that if they don’t toe the line, they too will be out. 

The suspicions against Ghattas, who is a member of the Balad faction in the Joint List, first came to light on Sunday, when the police and Israel Prison Service (IPS) announced that they suspected him of passing cellphones and slips of paper to political prisoners. Ynet reported that Ghattas was “already being followed when he arrived at the prison” because the IPS’ intelligence unit had been tipped off that he was planning to smuggle phones to security prisoners. The next day, it was claimed that Ghattas had already gone underground and heavy hints were dropped about his family ties to former MK Azmi Bishara, who fled Israel after being accused of espionage and passing information to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In one article after another journalists are forgetting to note that they’ve received false reports, such as that of Ghattas fleeing, rather than appearing for questioning as he was ordered to. Or they suggest that they have already figured out what is happening inside the party, despite the party itself not yet knowing.

Most bizarre of all is that no one cares that Ghattas never confessed. Channel 2, aside from the briefing they received from the police, never bothered to clarify the MK’s own position. Declaring he had done nothing that breached state security, Ghattas said: “My visits to prisoners are for humanitarian and moral purposes… The prisoners endure difficult conditions and it is part of my parliamentary and public role to address that. I have nothing to hide.”

A billboard to the Israeli-Arab party, Balad, in Nazareth, January 2013 (photo: GS)
A Balad billboard in Nazareth, January 2013 (GS)

What’s truly worrying is the speed at which everything developed. Within two days of the suspicions surfacing, a proposal by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan to bar elected officials from visiting security prisoners — aimed at Arab MKs — had already been approved by a Knesset committee. The absurdity in all this is that no one checked the facts, and by the time the right-wing government has finished with its precedent-setting expulsion of Ghattas, the outcome of the investigation against him will no longer be relevant.

For those with a short memory, it was only a month ago that the Israeli Right — led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and accompanied by the media — incited against Arab society by accusing them of an organized arson campaign. It’s now clear that most of the accusations were false. This is what’s also likely to happen in Ghattas’ case: the media mobilizes and incites; the Israeli public, which also fails to check the facts, puts pressure on MKs; and the decision will be made to start dismissing Arab lawmakers from the Knesset.

Behind the wave of incitement, what the Right actually wants is to create a new political reality — one in which the discourse contains no mention of the occupation. The debate surrounding Ghattas has demonstrated this reality: in all that has been said about the affair in the last few days, not one word has been uttered about political prisoners who have been jailed for wanting to live in dignity. The entire media debate is being conducted by those who preach morality to us — those who, with the help of a violent military force, have ruled for nearly 50 years over millions of people, some of whom are under a 10-year siege with no basic rights.

The discourse the Right is trying to impose, aided by a media tailwind and the silence of the Left, severs our connection with our own people. That’s the reason why Balad and its Knesset members are appearing in the headlines — because we don’t ignore even for a moment that we are part of the Palestinian people, that the occupation is occupying our land, and that the prisoners are our brothers and sons.

In the past 12 months or so, the Islamic Movement was outlawed; dozens of Balad officials and activists were arrested on false charges regarding financial conduct; and proposed bills such as the one to ban the Muslim call to prayer were presented to the public and to the government as normal laws. Throughout, the media blindly followed the Right, time and again. After all that, the expulsion of Arab Knesset members is just the tip of the iceberg of what awaits us.

Abed Abu Shehada is an activist with the Balad party and a student at The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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