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In the hot seat

Al-Ahram Weekly – 8 November 2001

The Israeli leadership was steering a collision course with its Palestinian minority this week when it stripped Knesset member Azmi Bishara, one of the country’s most outspoken critics, of his parliamentary immunity in order to put him on trial for treason.

The decision against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) parliamentarian is seen as a major attack on freedom of speech as it allows Bishara to be prosecuted in the criminal courts for his political comments. There are fears among Palestinian leaders in Israel that this new policy will be selectively applied to Arab MKs in order to silence them. Many are concerned that the move is a prelude to outlawing some Arab parties, particularly Bishara’s NDA and the Islamic Movement.

On Monday a parliamentary committee voted 14 to six to strip Bishara of his immunity, removing the main obstacle stopping law officers from indicting and charging him for a visit he made to Syria in the summer. Bishara, who was not at Monday’s committee meeting, said he did not commit any crime and that “removing an MKs immunity for expressing his democratic political views is a mark of shame for the Knesset.”

The committee’s decision still needed to be ratified by the whole Knesset, which was due to vote on the issue on Tuesday. An agreement between the ruling Likud coalition and the opposition group postponed the vote until Wednesday to allow more MKs to vote, but the boost made little difference. Yesterday, the Knesset voted in two separate ballots to strip Bishara of his immunity. The first, concerning his anti-Israeli remarks, was backed by 61 MKs. The second, regarding his organising of trips to Syria, was voted through by 65 MKs.

Bishara went to Kardaha in June to attend a memorial service for the late Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. Pictures showing Bishara seated with the Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas members outraged the Israeli government and public. At the ceremony, Bishara denounced the “warmongering” policies of Ariel Sharon’s government and suggested that resistance was a legitimate response to Israeli occupation — comments that were seen in Israel as support for Hizbullah.

Israeli Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has been relentlessly pursuing Bishara ever since, even ordering officials to lie in wait with court orders for Bishara when he crossed back into Israel from Jordan after the Syrian trip. Rubinstein has prepared two charges against Bishara. The first, for “incitement to violence” and “expressing support for terrorism,” refers to his remarks in Syria and to comments Bishara made a year earlier at a rally in northern Israel. In that speech, Bishara referred to Israel’s humiliating withdrawal from south Lebanon as the Arabs’ “first victory over Israel since 1967.” He also referred to Hizbullah as a “legitimate liberation movement.”

The second charge, “abetting illegal exit from Israel,” refers to trips Bishara organised for 800 elderly Palestinians to be reunited with relatives in Syria they had not seen since the 1948 war that created Israel. Although Bishara can travel to Syria on his diplomatic passport, it is illegal for ordinary citizens to enter a country with which Israel is at war without first receiving a permit.

Bishara claims that his comments were made in his capacity as an MP and that he is therefore covered by a professional immunity that cannot be lifted. As Bishara’s speeches concentrated on criticising Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, and Hizbullah’s right to militarily opposition, any trial risks developing into a potentially embarrassing examination of the legitimacy under international law of Israel’s occupation policies, both in Lebanon and currently in the West Bank and Gaza.

Bishara predicted as much when he was presented with draft indictments by Rubinstein in August. “Both indictments pose a large question mark over Israel’s pretensions to democracy,” he said. “If the first indictment [for incitement] comes to court, the discussion will have to revolve around the nature of the occupation and the right to resist occupation.”

Of the charge referring to his organisation of trips to Syria, he said: “Only heartless bureaucrats could have drafted the second indictment, in which they want to put me on trial for a humanitarian act of the highest degree.” Bishara says he did not ask the families to get permits because he believes there is evidence the Interior Ministry uses the process to coerce applicants to become collaborators.

The prospect of an elected politician standing in the dock to defend his opinions — risking a jail sentence if convicted — has unnerved even some Jewish MKs. Yossi Katz, the Labour Party chairman of the House Committee that lifted Bishara’s immunity, warned his colleagues before the vote not to continue with their course because immunity was the only protection Knesset members had against the curtailment of their free speech.

Jamil Dakwar, of the Arab legal organisation Adalah, which represents Bishara, said: “This is a very dangerous precedent which dramatically narrows the borders of Israeli democracy. Now opinions which should be contested in the political arena are being challenged in the courts. It is part of attempts by the government to stifle genuine debate.”

It is the first time in Israel an MK’s immunity from prosecution has been lifted over an expression of political views. Usually it is lifted only in cases where MKs are suspected of committing a crime. The nearest the Knesset has come to such an action was in the 1980s, when it partially lifted the immunity of Mohamed Miari, leader of the Progressive List for Peace. However, in that case the purpose was only to restrict Miari’s movements and prevent him from going to the West Bank and Gaza to meet with Palestinian leaders.

The decision on Bishara provoked demonstrations in major Arab towns, including Nazareth, Umm Al-Fahm, Arara, Kfar Kana, Sakhnin and Tira. In Nazareth, party activists stood in the main street waving Palestinian flags and handing out leaflets to passing pedestrians and motorists. They threatened to begin widespread protest campaigns.

Bishara is not alone among the 13 Arab MKs in facing legal investigation. In the past year, three other MKs – Mohamed Barakeh, Ahmed Tibi and Abdel-Malik Dehamshe – have been accused of incitement. Rubinstein has also accused another, Talab a-Sana, of sedition for his remarks that a Palestinian shooting attack on soldiers at the Ministry of Defence building in Tel Aviv was “a legitimate struggle of the first order for the Palestinians.”

Adalah has criticised Rubinstein’s selective investigations, which have overlooked inflammatory comments by Jewish Knesset members. One such MK, Michael Kleiner, of Herut, called for Bishara to be put in front of a firing squad.

Arab MKs have been facing other threats in carrying out their duties. Last week Mohamed Barakeh, Issam Makhoul and Ahmed Tibi were attacked by police when they attended demonstrations against land confiscations in Tira in central Israel. Tibi and Barakeh both required medical treatment for their injuries.

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