Police arrested 13 additional suspects on Wednesday in an ongoing investigation into the Arab nationalist Balad party’s campaign funding that appears to be boosting its popularity among the Arab minority.
Wednesday’s arrests come after the police on Sunday took into custody 23 Balad activists, lawyers and accountants.
Police suspect party officials of falsely representing the origin of millions of shekels obtained in Israel and abroad, used to finance party operations.
No party officials were arrested on Wednesday and Balad’s three Knesset members are not being investigated in the fraud probe, police said.
Balad is one of four parties that make up the Joint List faction in the legislature The arrests were “based on the suspicion that senior and active members of Balad, together with the many others, including lawyers and accountants, conducted in recent years a mechanism to allegedly systematically misrepresent the origin of millions of shekels that were introduced to party funds and were used to finance its operations,” police said in a statement on Wednesday.
Those arrested included Balad president Awad Abdul Fatah and other senior party leaders. Abdul Fatah’s remand was extended through Sunday, according to his lawyer, Hussein Abu Hussein Balad officials say most of the arrests were conducted by large numbers of police who entered suspects’ homes at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning. Asked about this, a police spokeswoman said “investigative actions are executed in accordance with investigative and operational considerations in strict adherence to the balance between them and the rights of suspects involved.”
Balad is uncompromising in its opposition to the Zionist ethos of the state and argues that Israel cannot be democratic as long as it defines itself as a Jewish state. Its MKs have been embroiled in controversies for acts seen as provocative and disloyal. Balad alleges that the arrests are “political persecution,” something the police deny.
The party has received strong support in the wake of the arrests from a broad range of Arab politicians. MK Masud Gnaim, a Joint List lawmaker, told The Jerusalem Post. “Of course this is political. They want to neutralize every Palestinian Arab political force that is a challenge to Netanyahu.
“It’s true that they say this is a violation of the electoral financing law, but they turned it into a security operation as if they are raiding bin Laden or terrorists,” Gnaim added.
Police dismiss the allegation that the investigation is politically motivated. “The Israel Police reported that the decision to open an investigation is based on professional and substantive considerations with a view to establishing an evidentiary basis sufficient for the suspicion of criminal offense. In the case of sensitive investigations it was the decision of the highest officials in law enforcement’’ to conduct the probe, a police spokeswoman said.
MK Nava Boker (Likud) voiced support for the police. “The accusations of senior people in Balad that the investigation against them is based on political or communal persecution are grave,” she said. “It is interesting that in other cases, with other suspects, they let the police investigate, and here when the suspects are from Balad they hurry to cry that it’s persecution. I rely on the Israel Police to know how to resolve this episode and I am sure there is no persecution, not political and not communal.”
Political analyst Wadie Abu Nassar predicted the arrests would make Balad stronger in the short term. “This has been controversial in the Arab community,” he said. “Some say it seems that they did something wrong, but the overwhelming majority says ‘most parties in Israel are not clean, why are they persecuting Balad?’” The arrests come nearly a year after authorities outlawed the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, saying it threatened public order, incited to violence and cooperated with Hamas. At the time, leaders of the Arab citizens of Israel also charged that this was a political step and predicted it would pave the way for moves against other groupings.
“Some people say that they are doing this one after the other; people are afraid it will continue,” said Abu Nassar, director of the International Center for Consultations in Haifa.
“I believe we’ll have serious trouble here,” he added. “Arabs and Jews are already in a broken relationship. For the vast majority of Arabs, even those who dislike Balad, there is something stinky here. I think Balad probably committed some violation. I don’t think they’d go after Balad if it could really defend itself in Israeli court. But on the other hand, it’s not only Balad that has stinky things. It is difficult to talk about very clean politics in Israel. There are a lot of reports of suspicious funding. It seems that something is wrong here with the Israeli establishment. For an average Arab it is difficult to take this without considering its political connotations.”
Police said in a statement on Sunday that “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.
“It is suspected that companies involved in fund-raising hid the origins and trajectories [of the funding], while committing offenses that center on receipt of aggravated fraud, falsifying corporate documents, forgery, use of forged documents, money laundering, and violations of the Parties Financing Law, the Local Authorities Law and others.”
Balad has been controversial since its inception. Party founder MK Azmi Bishara fled Israel in 2007 while he was 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 with him in August 2014 during the Gaza war (Operation Protective Shield). Last February, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Balad MKs after they met in Jerusalem with families of Palestinians slain while carrying out attacks and observed a moment of silence for them.
Sami Abu Shehadeh, a Balad central committee member and former city councilor for Tel Aviv-Jaffa, told the Post: “What’s happening is a continuation of the persecution of Balad because of its political views. If you have anything against them, bring your papers to court and let the judge decide without going to their homes at 3 in the morning with dozens of security personnel going into the Arab villages and making everyone crazy and angry. Why did they need to do that about things that were maybe wrong financially in 2013?
”They went at 3 in the morning to terrorize the people. The neighborhoods in the Arab areas are overcrowded, with most families living one beside the other. When you go at 3 in the morning everyone wakes up and starts asking what’s happening. They want to give people the impression the leadership of Balad is dangerous and that no one should deal with them,” Abu Shehadeh said.
“This is not the first time Balad is being persecuted, and each time we become stronger, because the vast majority of Arabs don’t trust the police, including those who don’t support Balad, and people know Balad has been persecuted politically since its establishment,” he added. “If you read the Arab papers and see Facebook, there is a lot of solidarity with Balad and its president and leadership, because for anyone who thinks logically, it does not look logical.
“I don’t think this pressure will help the government, because the problem is not Balad,” Abu Shehadeh said. “The main issue is the occupation. The main issue is discrimination. The main issue is racism. If Balad stops fighting, others will come and fight this injustice.”