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The Knesset Member and the Terrorist

Why did a prominent Israeli parliamentarian smuggle cell phones to a convicted murderer?

Liel Leibovitz
December 23, 2016
Photo credit should read Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas speaks during a press conference in Nazareth on June 30, 2015. Photo credit should read Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit should read Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images
Arab-Israeli lawmaker Basel Ghattas speaks during a press conference in Nazareth on June 30, 2015. Photo credit should read Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

Monday, Aug. 6, 1984, started off well for Moshe Tamam. The young corporal was just a year and two months into his service in the Israel Defense Forces, but he was thriving, learning everything from how to dismantle explosive devices to the fine art of driving large trucks. More important for the outgoing and handsome youth, he had met a young woman and was enjoying the early days of courtship: When the army granted him a short leave, he wasted no time in traveling to Tiberias to see his sweetheart. That evening, hitchhiking his way back home, he must’ve been relieved to see a Ford Cortina pulling over to pick him up. He jumped in the car. It took off. A few uneventful minutes went by. Then, the two young men seated in the back, Ibrahim Nayef Abu Mukh, 26, and Rushdi Hamdan Abu Mukh, 24, pulled out handguns and aimed them at Tamam’s head. They tied him up and covered his eyes with a rag.

The car darted up the highway, making its way to Nayef’s home in the Israeli Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiye. For two days, the kidnappers—the group’s two other members were Ibrahim Razek Badsa, 26, and Walid Daka, 25, also from Baqa—tried to work out a plan to smuggle Tamam across the border into Syria and hand him off to their commanders in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When that proved too complicated, they decided Tamam had to die. They tortured him first, and when that grew tiresome they forced him back into the car and drove to a nearby olive grove. Razek pulled out his gun and squeezed the trigger. The bullet scratched Tamam’s forehead. The soldier fell to the ground, bleeding. Razek walked up to him and shot again, this time at close range. The bullet pierced Tamam’s chest, punctured his lung and his heart, and exited through the soldier’s back, just below his left shoulder blade. He died on the spot. The four terrorists fled the scene. They were arrested two years later and sentenced to life in prison.

Their trial sent Israelis into a frenzy. Meir Kahane, the firebrand rabbi, delivered a speech that captured the sentiments of many: The murder, he noted, wasn’t perpetrated by foreign agents but by citizens of the state, young men who were educated in Israeli schools and voted in Israeli elections and benefited from the state’s sturdy social safety net. “The car,” he said with his brand of toxic irony, “was driven by Arabs. They weren’t bad Arabs. They were good Arabs, Israeli Arabs, citizens of the state. Let every Jew here hear and remember forever what they did to that soldier in Baqa.” If Jewish soldiers were afraid to hitchhike in the Jewish state, Kahane continued, the whole Zionist project was a joke. “After 2,000 years,” Kahane thundered, “did we come back home to fear?”

Other public figures were more delicate. Among the most resonant of those who rose up to preach peace and reconciliation was Basel Ghattas, a young student activist who was quickly climbing up the ladder of Israel’s Communist Party. Together with his cousin Azmi Bishara, he helped organize Arab students in high schools and universities, believing that Israel’s sizable minority could thrive only if it organized and took charge of its own communal institutions and demanded equality and respect. The Communist Party, the biggest political player among Israeli Arabs, was the natural choice for an ambitious young man like Ghattas, but its rigid pro-Soviet line was increasingly distasteful to the entrepreneurial young man; in his public appearances, Ghattas said he believed in dignity for all, not in a centralized and predatory power that elevated some and oppressed others. He quit the party and put his considerable energy into a new organization: Brit Ha’Shivyon, the Covenant of Equality, a radical movement of Jews and Arabs that was the first to demand that Israel cease being a Jewish state and instead transform itself into a democracy for all of its sons and daughters, regardless of faith. It was a radical call, one many Israeli Arabs and most Israeli Jews still reject, and when the movement fizzled, Ghattas was expected to follow in his cousin’s footsteps—Bishara had become a prominent politician—and run for office. But politics had always struck Ghattas as a limited and limiting sandbox. Instead, he completed a Ph.D. in environmental engineering at the Technion and embarked on a chain of enterprises that sought to provide Israeli Arabs with better opportunities. In 2007, for example, he launched Malkom, Israel’s first Arabic-language financial magazine, a project that soon attracted the support and praise of many of Israel’s business leaders.

That same year, Azmi Bishara walked into the Israeli embassy in Cairo and resigned from the Knesset. The respected legislator, it was discovered, had communicated with Hezbollah in Lebanon, supplying the terrorist organization, one of Israel’s most murderous foes, with information about optimal strategic locations to strike with long-range missiles. Under investigation, Bishara fled to Egypt and from there to Qatar, where he still resides.

Bishara’s betrayal reopened old wounds. As a survey conducted a few years later by a renowned sociologist from Haifa University revealed, relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs appeared to be hurtling toward the abyss. Both groups still expressed a strong commitment to the principles of democracy and the lawful redress of grievances, but 66 percent of Arabs replied that Israel had no right to exist as a Jewish state, and nearly 38 percent said the Holocaust didn’t happen, while 32.6 percent of Jews said Arabs should not be allowed to vote.

Against this background, it was clear that the time had come for a realignment, and Israel’s notoriously quarrelsome Arab political parties took heed and decided to unite under one big tent, called the Joint List and led by a charismatic young lawyer named Ayman Odeh. In speeches that received wide coverage in Israel and abroad, Odeh struck many of the same notes Ghattas had decades earlier. His party, he said repeatedly, was here to speak not only for Israeli Arabs, but also for Jews who emigrated to Israel from Arab countries and whose culture and identity was deemed unworthy by the Jewish state’s Ashkenazi hegemony. “We represent those who are invisible in this country,” he said, “and we give them a voice. We also bring a message of hope to all people, not just to the Arabs but to the Jews, too.” Ghattas joined Odeh; he had been a member of the Knesset before, elected in 2013 with his small party, Balad, but in 2015, when the Joint List triumphed electorally, Ghattas became a prominent legislator representing what was now Israel’s third-largest political party.

Last week, Ghattas traveled to a maximum-security prison in southern Israel. He was there to visit Walid Daka, the mastermind behind the murder of Moshe Tamam. In the three decades since his arrest, Daka has worked hard to refashion himself as a Palestinian martyr; he has retracted his original confession for the soldier’s brutal killing and proclaims a belief in peace. A play based on his writings was recently staged by an Israeli-Arab theater, sparking controversy, and a mural of him adorns a street corner in his native town of Baqa. Video surveillance footage from Ghattas’s visit showed the member of Knesset handing the terrorist four envelopes. Detectives sought to question Ghattas as he exited the prison, but he invoked his parliamentary immunity and fled the scene. A search in Daka’s cell, however, revealed that the envelopes contained 12 cell phones, 16 SIM cards, two chargers, an earpiece, and notes, the content of which are as yet unclear.

Under pressure, Ghattas resurfaced and agreed to forgo his immunity and submit to an investigation. His fellow legislators reacted harshly, with many demanding that all Knesset members be searched prior to entering the building lest some decide to blow it up. Some Israeli pundits are arguing that Ghattas is a faithful representative of his community, a community that is growingly hostile to the state and increasingly supportive of its enemies. Others claimed that Ghattas, like Bishara before him, is doing his voters a disservice by betraying the desire of the majority of Israeli Arabs for peaceful coexistence. No matter what Ghattas’ investigation reveals, both sides are likely to continue to dig themselves deeper into their respective positions, claiming that life together for two peoples in the Jewish state is either an imperative or an impossibility. It’s an ancient debate, and it goes on, with each new heartbreak and betrayal making the next chapter grimmer than the last.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.