Basel Ghattas: Why I brought phones to Palestinians in prison
In late December, Palestinian-Israeli MK Basel Ghattas of the Joint List - the Palestinian coalition in the Israeli Knesset - was arrested for smuggling mobile phones to Palestinian prisoners.
Earlier this month as part of a plea bargain, an Israeli court convicted Ghattas on charges of fraud, breach of trust and smuggling a prohibited letter and electronic equipment into a prison. He was sentenced to two years in jail. An earlier charge of providing material support for the perpetration of an act of terror was removed as part of the deal and Ghattas was also forced to resign from his post.
For the first time since his indictment, Ghattas explains why he was motivated to bring the phones to the prison and what he hopes will happen as a result of his time in detention:
It was only a few hours after I left the Ktzi'ot Prison in a far corner of the Naqab desert that the aggressive media campaign, complete with fake news stories based on police leaks, took off.
Across the Israeli Hebrew news channels and websites, headlines everywhere blatantly shouted "Arab Knesset Member in the service of the terror", with stories full of fake accusations that I had smuggled ״encoded letters with instructions for terror activities".
This defaming drive, which painted me as a mega terror supporter, continued on until the day I signed the plea agreement with the Israeli attorney general last week.
During the entire ordeal of the past few months, I have been mistreated and deprived of fair and legal procedures to which every citizen is entitled. With my case, Israeli institutions crossed all the red lines.
I have been mistreated and deprived of fair and legal procedures to which every citizen is entitled
In an unprecedented move, my parliamentary procedural immunity was revoked and I was interrogated by police, arrested and detained for five days – over the Christmas holiday – followed by 10 days of house arrest. Such radical acts against a sitting MK are exceptional and unprecedented.
While numerous other Jewish MKs, ministers and public figures have faced investigation (and, eventually, prosecution and punishment) in cases of alleged rape, sexual harassment, bribery and other serious finance-related charges in Israel, absolutely none of them have been treated in this severe manner and denied their right to due process.
Later, the Israeli attorney general decided to indict me without first affording me a hearing as guaranteed by law and customarily granted to public figures. I was finally offered this right only after Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, intervened and threatened to appeal to the supreme court.
A moral act
From day one, I have been clear that whatever I did had no security dimension. It was a personal act, motivated only by humanitarian and moral reasons, for which I’m ready to take full responsibility.
Since I was first elected in early 2013, I have been concerned with the Palestinian political prisoners’ cause. But even as Palestinian members of the Israeli Parliament, we were never able to do much in relation to this cause. We only had the right to visit these prisoners. Only a few of us did that regularly, listening during these visits to their complaints regarding the horrible inhumane conditions they are suffering on a daily base.
One of the most severe atrocities that Palestinian prisoners endure is the denial of their right to communicate with their families and relatives by phone and the limitations that Israeli authorities put on the visitors they can receive.
Prisoners have only been allowed to see first-degree relatives every two weeks, although thanks to a new International Red Cross policy, that will be reduced to once a month starting in July.
One of the most severe atrocities that Palestinian prisoners endure is the denial of their right to communicate with their families
It is critical to understand that Palestinian prisoners are administratively categorised as "security prisoners" and that, compared to other prisoners, they are collectively discriminated against while Jewish "security prisoners" enjoy the same rights as all other "regular" prisoners.
These administrative acts taken by Israeli authorities are a clear violation of the recently ratified UN "Nelson Mandela" rules for the treatment of prisoners. Specifically, I'm referring to the violation of Rule 2, Article 1 that clearly prohibits any sort of discrimination between prisoners, and Rule 58, Article 1(a) and 1(b) which stress the right of prisoners to communicate with their families and friends using telecommunication, digital and other means and to receive visitors.
Basic rights denied
After every visit I paid to prisoners, I followed up on these issues of detention and prison conditions with Israeli prison authorities and the minister in charge. I focused especially on the just demands that they have one public phone in each section of the prison under the full surveillance and also allow visits from all relatives.
Unfortunately, despite all of our efforts, we have failed to change these cruel policies. As a result, Palestinian political prisoners and their families continue to face extreme harassment and oppression that no one with solid humanitarian or moral values can accept.
It was in this context that I decided to help Palestinian prisoners communicate with their families
Israel continues to prevent them from the very basic right of talking to their relatives by phone and of seeing them for tens of years.
In certain prisons, especially in the south, prisoners were able to obtain mobile phones, seemingly with the silent acceptance of the prisons authorities. So Palestinian families tried every way possible to smuggle phones to their beloved sons.
It was in this context that I decided to help Palestinian prisoners communicate with their families.
The heavy price
I had to handle the consequences of my case in an atmosphere of extreme incitement and hostility.
On the one hand, I had to deal with the distortion of facts and news leaking from the police to the media and, on the other hand, the threat that authorities would apply the newly passed expulsion law which enables 90 Knesset members to expel another MK from parliament.
Despite the heavy price I will pay, there is an opportunity to attract attention to Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli jails and the inhumane conditions they face
Through tough negotiations during my hearings at the office of the attorney general and the public persecutor, we were able to reach a plea deal to prevent drawn-out court proceedings that could last for years in an entirely hostile climate.
In the final plea deal, the serious security charges first presented to the Knesset - the same ones that could have led to my imprisonment for up to 10 years in jail - were dropped.
With the consultation of my excellent lawyers and, of course, my family, I carefully studied all the available options. I also took into consideration the interests of the other parties indicted with me in the same case and decided to accept this deal and to bear its consequences, including resigning from the Knesset and accepting a two-year jail term.
Despite the heavy price I will pay, there is an opportunity to attract local and international attention to the cause of the Palestinian political prisoners in the Israeli jails and the inhumane conditions they face, including administrative detention.
If this happens as a result, then I will be more than happy that the sacrifice I made has been rewarded.
- Basel Ghattas is a member of the Israeli Knesset for the Joint List.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Basel Ghattas appears at the Magistrate Court in Rishon Letzion in central Israel on 26 December 2016 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.