Arab-Israeli politician to be punished over plans to join Gaza flotilla

An Israeli parliament committee has voted to strip an Arab-Israeli politician of some of his parliamentary privileges in response to his announcement that he would be joining the 'Freedom Flotilla' which is heading to the Gaza Strip this month.

Basel Ghattas, a member of the Joint List party which swept into third place in the Israeli elections this March, announced that he would join the international flotilla earlier this week. He is currently based in Greece from where he will join the flotilla in the coming week ahead of its voyage to Gaza, as it attempts to break the economic blockade on the territory.

Ghattas, a member of the Balat party within the Arab-majority Joint List bloc, revealed earlier this week in a letter to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would participate in the flotilla. He explained that he wanted to join as the flotilla's aim is to "try to force international pressure on Israel to change its policies. If the current situation continues, the next outbreak of violence is only a matter of time."

Now, Israel's Knesset House Committee has voted 10 to 2 in favour of stripping Ghattas' immunity from prosecutions. Ahead of the vote, a heated debate ensued between members of the pro-Arab parties and major Jewish parties in the Knesset, according to the Times of Israel.

Despite the result, the committee still does not retain the authority to implement the decision, and so the case is to now be referred to the Knesset Ethics Committee. Opposition Joint List politicians said they would refer the case to Israel's Supreme Court if it proceeded.

Israeli political experts are divided over whether the Knesset Ethics Committee, which holds the authority to implement the decision, will uphold the move to strip the Arab-Israeli politician of his immunity from prosecution. "Given the balance of power in the Knesset committee, I don't think the result in the Ethics Committee will be different," says Ron Gilran, vice-president at geopolitical risk consultancy The Levantine Group.

Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says that he "does not think anything is going to happen" as long as Bhattas does not get on the flotilla, but he believes that he may have had ulterior motives. "I think something that he really wanted to get, some kind of news coverage etc, propaganda points for his own supporters, I think he got it."

The flotilla is projected to transport activists and aid to Gaza in a move which has prompted Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor to call for the global body to condemn the challenge to the naval blockade.

Previous attempts to challenge the naval blockade have failed after being strongly opposed by the Israeli elite and members of the international community. In 2010, the Freedom Flotilla, led by the Turkish vessel Mavi Marmara, concluded with nine Turkish activists being shot dead by Israeli naval commandos, who had intercepted the boat to prevent it reaching Gaza and claimed that 40 passengers on the boats confronted them with knives and iron bars. In 2011, a second attempt to send a flotilla to Gaza did not successfully sail after Athens prevented any boats intended for Gaza from leaving Greek ports.

In reaction to the Knesset decision, organisers of the flotilla condemned the move to punish Ghattas as an impediment of free speech in the country.

"I strongly believe that this is an overreaction which is, sadly to say, not uncommon and not unexpected," says Ann Ighe, spokesperson of the advocacy group focused on ending the Israeli blockade, Ship to Gaza Sweden, adding that the flotilla hopes to reach, or at least attempt to reach, Gaza's shores before the end of June. "A country that really takes care of its democracy and free speech would not do a thing like this."

"I have been speaking to Mr Ghattas, I think he is wise, but I think that he will also pay a big price of course," she adds. "There is nothing more radical in the demands of this flotilla and in what Mr Ghattas has said, than is in the statements made by the UN, statements by the EU, statements by the Red Cross."

The sealing off of the enclave, controlled by the Islamist faction Hamas, has been implemented by Israel since 2006, after the capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas and the victory of the group in the elections held a year later.

The only vessel of the planned flotilla to have its location made public, Swedish fishing boat the Marianne of Gothenburg, has left Italy and is sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean where it will join up with other vessels in Greece to make the journey to Gaza, Ighe confirmed to Newsweek. The number of vessels to be involved in the flotilla and their countries of origin remains unclear.