Over 30 activists and senior officials from the Arab National Democratic Assembly, or Balad party, have been arrested in recent weeks on charges ranging from money laundering to mishandling campaign contributions, in what many in the Palestinian community are calling a new wave of political persecution. As part of the Joint List in the Knesset, Balad is one of the main political parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“The arrests are being used to scare Palestinians by using false information,” said Balad Knesset Member Jamal Zahalka. “They are a means to stop Palestinians wanting to change their situation.”
On the night of September 18, police arrested many of the party’s leaders at their homes, including party Chairman Awad Abdelfattah and staff from Fasl Al Maqal, the party’s newspaper. While further arrests followed four days later, all party members who were jailed have now been released on home arrest.
The investigation centers around allegations that the party falsified the origins of millions of shekels in campaign contributions, from both domestic and international donors, and involves hundreds of party members.
The specifics of the charges are being withheld from the public, those arrested and their attorneys, but according to police statements, the charges include “fraud, falsifying corporate documents, forgery, use of forged documents, money laundering and violations of the Party Financing Law, the Local Authorities Law and others.”
While Palestinian leaders across Israel are condemning the arrests as a threat to Israeli democracy, activists and politicians also view the investigation as a part of a larger campaign of suppression.
“The state is gradually but systematically implementing a strategy intended to eliminate all political opposition,” said Balad officials in an official statement rejecting the charges against its leadership.
“These offenses are dealt with by imposing fines. The real intention is to eliminate the assembly and political project of Balad,” said Maria Zahran, a member of Balad’s legal staff. “We see this attack on Balad as a continuation of all the political persecution [from] which the Arab masses suffer, inside Israel.”
Two days after the initial arrests, the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens in Israel organized a demonstration in Nazareth to call for an end to this persecution. Members of the Arab community also organized demonstrations in Haifa, Baqa al-Gharbiyye, Sakhnin, Majd al-Krum and Rishon LeZion.
Analysts have suggested that the party may be targeted primarily because of worries about the influence of foreign financial contributions to political parties, citing specific references in the media to “money that came in suitcases Qatar.” This would not be the first time that concerns about the role of foreign finances in Israeli politics would be used to go after Palestinian or leftist policial organizations. Israeli politicians cited similar concerns earlier this year in support of a new “NGO Law,” a measure requiring civil society groups that receive more than half of their funding from foreign contributions to identify themselves as such upon entering the parliament.
But Balad has often been at the center of controversy. The party’s three Knesset Members were temporarily suspended from the parliament earlier this year for visiting the families of Palestinians in Jerusalem who were involved in attacks on Jewish Israelis. Azmi Bishara, a former Balad Chairman, was accused of collaborating with Lebanese militants in 2006. Saeed Nafa, a former Balad MK, was sentenced to one year in prison for a trip to Syria.
As evidence of the broader political suppression, Balad members are citing the government’s move to outlaw the Northern Wing of the Islamic Movement earlier this year, which resulted in the shutdown of 17 associated civil society groups. Shekh Raed Salah, the head of the organization, was convicted of incitement to violence and racism and sentenced to nine months in jail.
Balad members also point to the passage of a new “Expulsion Law” in the Knesset. The new law, passed in July, grants the parliament the power to expel Knesset Members with a three-quarters majority if they are found to have incited to racism or supported armed struggle against the state. The Joint List condemned the law and vowed to appeal the law in the Supreme Court, while Mohammed Zeidan, director of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth, claimed that the law “violates all rules of democracy.”
Activists in the Palestinian community have also cited how Balad is not the only political party in Israel to be accused of mishandling finances. Former top officials from Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. Those under investigation include Stas Misezhnikov, a former Minister of Tourism, and Faina Kirschenbaum, a former Deputy Minister of the Interior.
Balad’s stated mission is to push Israel to become a democracy for all citizens, “irrespective of national or ethnic identity.” The party has held three seats in the Knesset since 2003 and supports a binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite the arrests, Balad has continued operations on the national and local levels, including organizing demonstrations in the Arab community to commemorate the lives of 13 civilians killed by police in October 2000.