Israel’s Arab nationalist party blames ‘political persecution’ for string of arrests
JERUSALEM // An Arab nationalist party that has been hit by a wave of arrests for alleged financial fraud is also the Israeli party that most strongly challenges the Zionist ethos of the state.
Leaders of the Balad party say this is no coincidence and have accused the government of “political persecution” following the arrest of at least 36 of its members this week.
Police said they arrested 13 Balad members early on Wednesday after taking into custody 23 Balad leaders and activists on Sunday. A Balad source said 38 people had been arrested and that 35 were still in custody on Thursday. No charges have been brought yet.
Those in custody include party president Awad Abdul-Fatah and other senior leaders.
Police said the party officials were detained on suspicion of violating Israel’s party financing law by misrepresenting the origins of millions of shekels used to finance its operations.
Police said the suspicion of violations – including aggravated fraud and money laundering – was not based on politics but the result of a professional investigation. Balad’s three members of Knesset – Israel’s parliament – are not being investigated.
The party’s officials deny wrongdoing and say it has been singled out because it calls into question the legitimacy of Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state.
“We are bringing the biggest challenge in political discourse with the idea that a Jewish state can never be a democracy. This didn’t exist before Balad,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, a member of the party’s central committee and former councillor in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality.
“This idea has been very influential on the academic level, with people becoming much more critical, mainly abroad but also in Israel,” he said. “The huge discussion in Israel led by [prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu that Arabs can’t just acknowledge Israel as a regular country but must acknowledge it as a Jewish state is mainly because of the challenges of the new political thought brought up by Balad and its leaders.”
Another reason the authorities are pursuing Balad is its support for the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, said Mr Abu Shehadeh.
“The Israeli government is seeing it can’t continue with its lies and that the BDS campaign is getting stronger all the time. They see this as a threat to their work and their policies. We are part of all this criticism against occupation and discrimination,” he said.
“This is why we’re chased more [than other Arab parties].”
Balad is by far the most controversial party in Israel. Its legislators have been embroiled in controversies for acts seen by the Israeli right as provocative and disloyal.
Party founder Azmi Bishara fled Israel in 2007 while under investigation for allegedly passing information to Hizbollah during the fighting in Lebanon a year earlier. He lives in Qatar, where three Balad Knesset members met him in August 2014 during the Gaza war, causing outrage in Israel.
Last February, Balad MPs were suspended by the Knesset ethics committee after they met with families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks and observed a moment of silence for them.
Hanin Zoabi, one the three Balad legislators elected to the Knesset in the March 2015 polls, touched off a wave of condemnation in November when she compared discriminatory laws and practices in Israel to Nazi policies before the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews.
“Balad is in principle the most nationalistic Arab party,” said Hebrew University political scientist Avraham Diskin. “Their stance is very extreme, more so than other Arab politicians who have criticism of the nature of Israel but not its very existence.”
In 1984, the Knesset passed a law requiring parties to not deny Israel’s nature as a “Jewish democratic state”. As a result, Balad was disqualified by the central elections committee several times from taking part in polls but the supreme court overturned the bans so that it did participate in the end. “They’re on the border of violating the law,” Mr Diskin said.
The arrests this week come nearly a year after authorities outlawed the northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, saying it threatened public order, incited violence and cooperated with Hamas. At the time, Arab Israeli leaders also charged that this was a political step and predicted it would pave the way for moves against other Arab groupings.
Masoud Ghanaym, a member of Knesset from the Joint List faction of which Balad is a component, predicted the arrests would make the party more popular.
“When the government persecutes a political party people identify with it,” he said.
Political analyst Wadie Abu Nassar said the arrests threatened to deepen the divide between Arabs and Jews in Israel.
“This has been controversial in the Arab community,” Mr Abu Nassar, director of the International Centre for Consultations in Haifa, told the Jerusalem Post.
“Some say it seems they did something wrong but the overwhelming majority says most parties in Israel are not clean, why are they persecuting Balad?”
“I believe we’ll have serious trouble here,” he added. “Arabs and Jews are already in a broken relationship. The vast majority of Arabs, even those who dislike Balad, believe there is something stinky here.”
Updated: September 22, 2016 04:00 AM