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Arab List MK hits back at Knesset move to suspend him for Flotilla role

Basel Ghattas has acccused his Knesset colleagues of not respecting democracy and says the Ethics Committee has no right to strip him of voting rights
Greek and foreign pro-Palestinian activists demonstrate in front of the Greek parliament 19 July, 2011 (AFP)

Basel Ghattas, a Knesset member for the Joint Arab List, has hit back at condemnation of his participation in the Freedom Flotilla III, which is about to set sail to Gaza in an attempt to deliver humanitarian supplies.

Speaking to Middle East Eye on Tuesday, Ghattas accused his Knesset colleagues of flouting democracy after the Knesset Committee complained to the Ethics Committee and asked it to probe Ghattas’s behaviour and suspend him from the Knesset.

“This is a ritual by the Israelis and by their ministers. They cannot understand what democracy is about and what it means to be an MP and to try and represent your constituents,” he said via phone from Greece where the three main Flotilla boats have currently docked ahead of their expected voyage to Gaza.

“The issue should not be about my participation [in the flotilla], it must be about the cruel conditions that Palestinians have been subjected to. People [in Gaza] are living with little clean water, food or medicine.”

Ghattas’ announcement on Sunday that he would be joining the flotilla sparked widespread criticism in Israel. Immigration Minister Zeev Elkin from the ruling right-wing Likud party said: "It is the gravest thing possible that an Israeli MP would join the flotilla whose aim is to help the Hamas terror organisation."

"Israeli law does not allow anyone to serve in parliament who supports a terror organisation," he told Israeli army radio. 

Deputy Foreign Minster Tzipi Hotovely has also spoken out saying that Ghattas was working against Israel.

"The participation of an Arab-Israeli MP alongside those who want to fight against Israel is a demonstration of activity in the service of the enemy under the sponsorship of parliamentary immunity," she said in a statement late on Sunday.

Ghattas is a founding member of the Balad Party, deemed to be at the far-left spectrum of Israeli politics and representing predominantly the Palestinian citizens of Israel. He was elected to the Knesset in 2013 and again in 2015 when Balad joined the Joint Arab List.

He insists that despite the criticism from within Israel he “is not worried” and says he has “had a great outpouring of support” from his constituents, activists and the youth who he says have been “very active and seem very satisfied with what I am doing”.

Suspension

According to Ghattas, the Ethics Committee has the right to prevent him from addressing fellow parliamentarians in the Knesset and discussing bills and could rule this week, or next week. It can also remove him from any committees, but it does not have the right to strip him of his voting rights. Even if it does so, Ghattas can appeal to the Supreme Court, which is seen as more liberal than the present government although it did uphold a suspension of fellow Balad Party MK, Haneen Zoabi, last year.

Zoabi was suspended for six months for saying that Hamas was not a terrorist organisation but was fighting occupation shortly after three Israeli teenage settlers were kidnapped and killed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to blame Hamas for their deaths. The incident helped to ignite last summer’s 51-day war with Gaza, although Hamas has never officially claimed responsibility for the killings.

Zoabi was also suspended in 2011 for her involvement in the first blockade-breaking flotilla. She was aboard  the Mavi Marmara which set sail in 2010 but was boarded by Israeli forces in international waters before it reached Gaza. Nine activists were killed and dozens wounded when Israeli commandos boarded the boat. 

After the incident, members of the Knesset Ethics Committee accused Zoabi of “not only behave[ing] inappropriately for an MK, but in a way inappropriate for any Israeli citizen,” as well as taking “advantage of her parliamentary immunity” to “incite against IDF [Israeli army] soldiers and the State of Israel”.

Despite her previous suspension, Zoabi has come out in firm support of Ghattas, saying that the attempts to suspend him are “unprecedented”.

“Usually it is an individual who files a request for the Ethics Committee to investigate, not a whole committee,” Zuabi told Middle East Eye.

“They are doing this before he has even made any action. The flotilla has not even sailed [from Greece] yet the Ethics Committee they wants to punish Basel Ghattas even before he has committed a crime – not that his actions should be considered a crime in the first place.”

The flotilla organisers have yet to confirm when the boats will be sailing although a source with close links to the committee said that the boats could leave as early as Wednesday 24 June.

Several members of the EU Parliament, as well as former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, have been confirmed as  VIP passengers on the flotilla.

While many other aspects of the voyage have yet to be confirmed, Ghattas has written to Netanyahu expressing his intent to try and break the siege.

“I request that you command the Israeli security forces to stay away and allow the flotilla to arrive at its destination.  Any form of takeover to prevent this will only involve Israel in yet another difficult international scandal that you and your government will be responsible for,” Ghattas wrote in his letter published on Monday.

The MK insists that while there can be no total guarantee about the safety of the passengers, he says that his letter is the best way that he can raise awareness in Israel and abroad.

“My letter was the best precaution that we could have taken,” he told Middle East Eye. “It clearly states that we are peaceful and that we are not bringing any arms or weapons. We are carrying medical supplies and devices to hospitals to help the people of Gaza.”

Gaza has been under siege for eight years, ever since Hamas won democratic elections and then proceeded to cement their control over the strip. The UN and other aid agencies have widely blamed the blockade for the deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza but Israel disputes this and says that Hamas is responsible for their suffering.    

The two sides were supposed to reach a lasting peace deal after last summer’s 51-day war where over 1400 Palestinians were killed and 67 Israeli soldiers plus 6 Israeli civilians were also killed. Little progress seems to have been made so far although a string of recent reports indicate that negotiations for a lasting deal could be progressing behind the scenes.

Ghattas said he did not know about any such negotiations, and said that the flotilla continued to be extremely important regardless of any rumours.

“Last year [after the war] there was supposed to be a ceasefire and we were supposed to see the opening up of a sea post amongst other changes. All of this was supposed to have been negotiated, but has not happened,” he said.

“The humanitarian situation there has only deteriorated further in the last year [since last summer’s 51-day war with Israel].”