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Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami Thursday criticized calls to punish Arab MKs for meeting with Hamas members of the Palestinian National Council. The second meeting between Arab MKs and Hamas council members from Jerusalem in two days took place east of the capital on Thursday, sparking debate across the political spectrum.
On Sunday, MK Dan Naveh (Likud) will submit a bill that would make any meeting between Israeli citizens or residents and members of a terrorist organization a crime.
This would reinstate a law which was revoked prior to the signing of the Oslo Agreements. Naveh also wants to change the law regarding MKs' immunity, so that it would not cover meetings members of a terrorist organization without prior approval from the cabinet.
"In an act of solidarity" two MKs from the Balad Party visited Hamas MPs whose right to reside in Jerusalem the cabinet decided to revoke following the Islamic Jihad suicide bombing that killed nine people in Tel Aviv on Monday.
"It is politically controversial, but this is what opposition politics are about," Ben-Ami told The Jerusalem Post. "They are challenging the government position, which is their right because they are in the opposition. You can object or accept it, but it is within their personal political rights," he said.
He also said that revoking Hamas MPs residency permits "was within Israel's legal right according to Israel's laws."
However, as long as the Israeli MKs did not conspire with the Hamas representatives to harm Israel, the law does not prohibit such meetings.
Section 114 of the Criminal Code, under the heading, "Contact with a foreign agent," sub-paragraph (d) reads, "No person shall be convicted under this section if it was proved to the court that he did not and did not intend to do anything calculated to impair the security of the state."
Therefore, the meetings between the Arab MKs and the Hamas representatives from Jerusalem "might be aggravating and infuriating, but they're not illegal," said Prof. Emmanuel Gross, a criminal law expert from the University of Haifa Law Faculty.
"We are MKs, not members of the cabinet, so we do not have to act according to the cabinet's decisions," MK Jamal Zahalka of Balad told the Post after the meeting with Hamas legislators Muhammad Abu Tier, Ahmed Atun and Muhammad Totah. The meeting was moved from the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs in Eizariya (Bethany) to a private residence in the town after Border Police blocked the way, said Zahalka.
"We went to express our solidarity today with them against the Israeli decision to expel them from their homes and from Jerusalem," said Zahalka. He said the decision to revoke their residency violated international law and international agreements signed by Israel as well as the US, EU and Russia.
"Elections were held and Palestinian parliamentarians were elected. Some are inhabitants of Jerusalem and they lived there before Israel came and occupied them," he said. "You can't leave someone without residency and citizenship. It's a revenge move and it will enhance the tension."
Zahalka said his party would try to get the Knesset to "cancel the process of expelling Palestinian parliamentarians from Jerusalem."
The affair began on Wednesday when three MKs from the United Arab List visited the Hamas MPs, both to show solidarity and to "promote peace," said MK Taleb a-Sanaa, one of the visitors. On Monday, a-Sanaa become the second Arab to be appointed to the prestigious Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when he was named a temporary member.
That appointment is now in question. MK Haim Ramon (Kadima), who is expected to play a central role in choosing the committee's permanent members, said it was doubtful that a-Sanaa, or any other Arab MK, would be placed there.
MKs from the right called for a-Sanaa's removal.
NRP-NU party MK Effi Eitam demanded of Ramon that a-Sanaa be kicked off the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee immediately.
"An MK who identifies with and supports Israel's worst enemies cannot serve on a committee that is charged with ensuring Israel's security," said Eitam. "I'm deeply concerned that a-Sanaa will divulge the sensitive information he has been privy to and endanger Israel's security."
"Arab MKs proved once again that their loyalties lie with the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, and not with Israel and its laws," said MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima).
Ben-Ami, however, said that talking with Hamas government leaders was important. "I think ways should be made to reach out to Hamas," he said. "I don't believe the government's plan to withdraw from some lands in the West Bank is going to work if it is not coordinated with Hamas. We don't need to be negative, we need to co-opt Hamas into some sort of political framework. You saw [British Foreign Secretary} Jack Straw said today he does not expect Hamas to recognize Israel, but to be brought into the process."
MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), chairman of the committee, asked Acting Knesset Speaker Shimon Peres to ban a-Sanaa from attending committee meetings.
"In light of his meeting with Hamas, a-Sanaa should not take part in this sensitive committee," wrote Steinitz in his request.
Labor Party MK Ophir Paz-Pines said PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's condemnation of terrorism was "brave and adequate," and that Arab MKs should follow Abbas's example. Paz-Pines, who has also been appointed to the panel on a temporary basis, called for the committee to meet as soon as possible to discuss the issue.
Ben-Ami rejected the security concerns of the other MKs, saying that the sessions of the full committee were "no big deal in terms of what they expose there." Ben-Ami, who served on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the sessions were "practically broadcast on TV. Nothing is secret." He noted that security clearance was only required for certain subcommittees and said "I'm sure the Arab MKs won't be admitted to them."
Ben-Ami called on the government to integrate Arab MKs into Israeli politics. "You cannot punish them by denying them participation in a particular committee," he said.
"I think it is very important for the Arab MKs to participate in all the Knesset committees, to integrate them into the political system. Israeli politics in the last 10-12 years has been run as if we have 110 MKs and not 120 MKS, in terms of the mathematics of coalitions and alliances. It's about time we start turning the Arab MKs into players in the political system, otherwise they will be pushed to extremes," he said.â€¢