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Israel Strips Immunity From Arab Lawmaker

Mideast: Parliament member is likely to face charges he voiced support for terrorists. Some fear Knesset move could backfire.


JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers stripped an Arab colleague of his parliamentary immunity Wednesday, setting the stage for him to be tried on charges of supporting terrorist organizations and arranging illegal trips to Syria.

Azmi Bishara became the first member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to have his immunity lifted for things he has said. A fiery and eloquent academic, Bi-shara has represented the militant Arab party Balad in the Knesset since 1996.

Bishara's critics said the move put Israeli Arab lawmakers on notice that they cannot use their position as lawmakers to undermine the state's security. But some analysts warned that the action could set a dangerous precedent, erode Israeli democracy and further alienate the nation's Arab minority, which makes up 18% of the population.

"This will lead to the establishment of new, extra-parliamentary movements within the Arab public, movements that will feel that the Israeli parliament has become irrelevant to the Arab public," said Wajih Kayuf, chairman of the Movement for the Promotion of Democracy in the Arab Sector in Israel, a nonprofit organization.

Vote Called a Bad Precedent

Naomi Chazan, a Knesset member with the left-wing Meretz Party, warned that the 61-30 vote against Bishara opens the door to further action against other Knesset members for voicing unpopular opinions.

"It is a precedent," she said. "To try to define lines for what is permissible and what is not permissible for a member to say is really very tricky. Up until now, this immunity, this freedom of speech, has been absolute. To break that down is very, very dangerous."

Other Knesset members fretted that putting Bishara on trial will produce a public relations disaster for Israel.

"The question is whether we are not doing a disservice to ourselves by bringing to trial Mr. Bishara, who will invite over all the Scandinavian freedom fighters and peace activists to defend freedom of speech in our 'fascist state,' " said Tommy Lapid, the leader of Shinui, a secular civil rights party.

The Knesset also approved a first reading of legislation that would ban any person who advocates armed struggle against Israel or supports terrorist organizations from competing in elections. It must pass two more readings before becoming law. Israeli Arab politicians said the votes were part of a systematic attempt to de-legitimize Arab parties.

But Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said the Knesset's actions were necessary.

"There's no doubt that there cannot be a situation where members of Knesset identify with the enemies of Israel and advocate war against Israel and remain members of Knesset, paid by the state," he said. "It doesn't go together, it contradicts the Knesset's oath, and members of Knesset should know exactly where they stand," he told Israel Radio.

Israeli Arabs are Palestinians who lived here when the state was created, and their descendants. Ten Israeli Arabs are now serving in the Knesset as representatives of non-Zionist parties, and others serve there as members of Zionist parties. Relations between the Jewish and Arab members of parliament have been strained during more than 13 months of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as have relations between the nation's Arab and Jewish citizens.

In October 2000, 12 Israeli Arabs and a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip were shot dead by Israeli police when protests against what the demonstrators said was Israel's excessive use of force against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza became violent.

The shootings outraged Israeli Arabs, who said the police treated them as enemies of the state rather than citizens engaging in civil protest. A state-appointed commission is investigating the reasons for the demonstrations and police conduct in quelling them.

The move against Bishara began in June, after he addressed Arab leaders, including Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, head of the militant Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, at a memorial ceremony in Syria for the late Syrian President Hafez Assad. In his address, Bishara accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of trying to drag the region into war.

Bishara, who ascribes to a pan-Arabist philosophy, called on Arab nations to "provide wider support for the Palestinian people's struggle against the [Israeli] occupation."

He also praised Hezbollah, which fought a guerrilla war against Israel when the Jewish state occupied southern Lebanon. Bishara called the movement a heroic example of Islamic resistance. The Bush administration recently added Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations.

Charges Detailed in Two Indictments

Atty. Gen. Elyakim Rubinstein prepared two indictments against Bishara. The first cited his statements, alleging that he praised violence and supported a terror organization in violation of Israel's Prevention of Terror Ordinance.

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