Israeli police have arrested two members of the Palestinian Legislative Council inside the Jerusalem headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Red Cross announced in a statement Monday. A relative of one of the MPs was also reported to have been arrested.
The two legislators, Mohammed Totah and Khaled Abu Arafeh, the former Minister for Jerusalem Affairs, are members of Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel. Totah and Arafeh have been living in the Red Cross’ Sheikh Jarrah compound since July 2010 in order to avoid deportation from the city due to their refusal to renounce ties with the Islamist movement.
Israeli National Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld was quoted by the Palestinian news website Ma’an as saying that the two were being interrogated for leading “Hamas activities inside Jerusalem.”
Ma’an also reported that a crowd of Arabs had gathered outside of the Red Cross to protest its failure to protect the MPs from arrest, claiming that as parliamentarians they should enjoy legal immunity.
Originally part of a larger group of Hamas political representatives in Jerusalem known as the “Hamas Four,” Totah and Arafeh were the only remaining MPs still at large in the capital.
Their colleagues MP Muhammad Abu Teir and MP Ahmad Attoun of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Bahir were detained last year by Israeli security forces and expelled to the West Bank, leaving the remaining lawmakers to serve as Hamas’s de facto representatives in Jerusalem.
In 2006, following the Palestinian elections, the Interior Ministry informed the Hamas politicians that they risked losing their residency rights in Jerusalem if they continued to represent their party.
Their continued residency in the capital, the government explained, was dependent on their official repudiation of ties with the group.
The first action came as Israeli forces in Jerusalem arrested Abu Teir and evicted him to the West Bank. Following his detention, the three remaining legislators made their way to the Red Cross.
Soon after they moved into the Red Cross, Red Cross spokeswoman Dorothea Krimitsas stated that the three men had requested her organization’s “protection” from Israeli police and been informed that “they could remain on ICRC premises, but also that the ICRC could not prevent the Israeli authorities from taking action against them.”
“Israel, as the occupying power, has an obligation to protect the Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem and cannot lawfully undertake to forcibly transfer them from their homes,” Krimitsas stated. “Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, forcible transfers of protected persons are explicitly prohibited, regardless of their motive.”
When asked by reporters if the ICRC recognized Israel’s categorization of Hamas as a terror organization, Krimitsas replied that it “is not up to the ICRC… to confer a particular status on people or organizations or to recognize their legitimacy; neither does international humanitarian law.”
Israel, however, took exception to Krimitsas’s statement.
“The three people we are dealing with are senior members [and] leaders of Hamas… and nobody can expect a country to allow people of an organization that is calling openly for its destruction to roam around freely in the territory of that country,” the Foreign Ministry responded, indicating that the three fugitives “are illegally staying in east Jerusalem, and they will have to leave to a PA-controlled area.”
During their time at the Red Cross, the MPs made the area a de-facto Hamas political headquarters for Jerusalem, meeting with foreign dignitaries such as former President Jimmy Carter and numerous local Arab leaders.
A giant banner with the men’s faces adorned the side of the Red Cross headquarters building and a protest tent was set up within the walls of the compound.
Several weeks after announcement of the prisoner swap in which captive IDF serviceman Gilad Schalit was freed, MP Attoun was arrested in an undercover mission reminiscent of a spy novel.
Attoun was lured out of the Red Cross compound by several undercover police officers dressed as Arabs, who simulated an altercation on the street outside the compound.
When the lawmaker stepped outside to see what was happening, he was hustled into a waiting car and driven off.
Attoun’s brother had previously been arrested for Hamas related terror activity in the capital.
Pundits, both Israeli and Palestinian, have alleged that Israeli security forces have been unwilling to enter the Red Cross building due to fears of negative publicity.
In a petition to the High Court shortly after the beginning of their saga, the parliamentarians claimed that their deportation orders, which they termed “a grave violation of international law, collective punishment and racial discrimination,” were illegal because Israeli law did not apply in “occupied East Jerusalem.”
The High Court seemed to have agreed with the fugitives. On October 23 Court President Dorit Beinisch ruled that Interior Minister Eli Yishai has 90 days to provide a reason for having canceled the Hamas members’ legal residency.