Police arrested more than 20 officials of the Arab nationalist Balad party early Sunday on suspicion of campaign funding fraud totaling millions of shekels.
Balad denied the accusations and accused authorities of engaging in “political persecution” of Israel’s Arab politicians.
The police suspect party officials of falsely representing the origin of millions of shekels, obtained in Israel and abroad, used to finance party operations.
Arab48, a website close to Balad, reported that the party’s president, Awad Abdul-Fatah, had been taken into custody, while police said activists, lawyers and accountants were included among those arrested.
Balad’s three Knesset members were not investigated in the fraud probe, police said.
Balad chairman MK Jamal Zahalka said at a press conference at party headquarters in Nazareth that the Israel police is “political.”
“When there’s crime in Arab towns the police don’t act, but when there are political events they are hyperactive,” he said.Balad is uncompromising in its opposition to the Zionist ethos of the state and its MKs have been embroiled in controversies for acts seen by the Right as provocative and disloyal.
Party founder Azmi Bishara fled Israel in 2007 while being under investigation for allegedly passing information to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War a year earlier. He lives in Qatar, where three Balad MKs met him in August 2014 during the Gaza War.
In February, Balad MKs were suspended by the Knesset ethics committee after they met with families of Palestinians slain while carrying out attacks and observed a moment of silence in their honor.
Balad is one of four groupings in the predominantly Arab Joint List bloc in the Knesset.
On Sunday, it received support from other Arab MKs who backed its assertion that it is being targeted for political reasons, raising the prospect that the arrests could add further tensions to fraught relations between the government and the Arab minority.
The investigation conducted by the Lahav 433 special investigations was approved by the attorney-general and arose after a state comptroller audit that allegedly provided evidence of fraud, according to police.
The police suspect party officials of falsely representing the origin of millions of shekels that were used to finance party operations.
“The party allegedly received millions of shekels from donors from within Israel and from abroad, and fraudulently reported the amount of funding from hundreds of donors from within Israel,” police said.
“It is suspected that companies involved in fund-raising hid the origins and trajectories [of the funding], while performing offenses that center on receipt of aggravated fraud, falsifying corporate documents, forgery, use of forged documents, money laundering and violations of the Party Financing Law, the Local Authorities Law and others.”
In June, Haaretz
reported that 60 Balad activists had been questioned by police in a campaign fund-raising investigation.
Responding to the arrests, Balad said in a statement they are a “dangerous escalation” and another element in “the campaign of political persecution against the Arab minority, in general, and the political movements, in particular.”
“Balad forcefully rejects all the apparent allegations against it and its members and stresses that it conducts its party and financial affairs in the framework of the law.”
It claimed that the purpose of the arrests was “to silence Balad and harm its functioning and political role as the spearhead in the fight against discrimination and negating of rights.”
The arrests, it said, were made “in a general atmosphere of mounting fascism and racism against the Arab public as a whole.”
Among those arrested were Ahmad Abu Amar, the deputy mayor of Umm el-Fahm; Tira town councilor Hosni Sultani; and Shfaram city councilor Murad Hadad, Arab48 reported.
Mukhlis Burghal, who was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for throwing a grenade at a bus full of soldiers and was released in the 2011 Schalit exchange, was also arrested, according to Arab48.
The arrests come nearly a year after authorities outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic movement, saying it threatened public order, incited to violence and cooperated with Hamas.
Reacting to the arrests, MK Esawi Frej of Meretz charged that the police come down harder on the government’s political opponents than they do on right wingers.
“Unfortunately, the nationalist atmosphere that prevails dictates some things and influences decision makers when we are talking about people who aren’t from your political direction.
I have no doubt that the people who have a different view, who come from the side that isn’t in power, get different treatment than the extremists on the other side. I have no doubt that the current rule and the nationalist atmosphere prevailing in the country because of the government influences the conduct of investigations of people who are different ideologically,’’ he said.
Ahmad Tibi, a Joint List MP, told The Jerusalem Post that “the arrests of many senior figures in the party and the attacks on Balad MKs raise the suspicion of political persecution of the party and a stopping of it in a non-democratic manner.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld responded that the arrests are “absolutely not political.”
“We are talking about a thorough investigation over several months with concrete information and evidence gathered of fraud and receiving money without the information being transferred to the authorities,” Rosenfeld said.