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In Israel’s parliament, even limited Palestinian dissent is under threat

“These people have gone too far…”
MK Nissan Slomiansky, February 10, 2016

Many Palestinian citizens of Israel “take their rights too far.”
Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, May 13, 2008

On February 2, Members of Knesset met with the families of Palestinian assailants whose bodies are being withheld by Israel authorities. The visit by Haneen Zoabi, Basel Ghattas, and Jamal Zahalka, all from Balad and part of the Joint List, was part of “a campaign being conducted by the families and legal aid and human rights groups seeking the return of the bodies of their family members.”

According to Ghattas, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan had been aware that the Palestinian MKs were “dealing with the issue of the return of the bodies”, and had even asked the Balad politicians “for more information about the families.” When news spread of the lawmakers’ meeting with the families, however, the public and political reaction was one of fury.

“Knesset members who pay a condolence call to families of terrorists who have killed Israelis are not fit to serve in the Israeli Knesset”, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuin a statement. Minister of Culture Miri Regev denounced the Palestinian MKs as a “fifth column”, while MK Avigdor Lieberman urged the removal of “these terrorists” from the Knesset “and preferably from…Israel.”

Days later, the Knesset’s Ethics Committee suspended Zoabi and Ghattas from plenary sessions and committee hearings for a period of four months, and Zahalka for two months. By coincidence, the committee’s decision came a day after Zoabi was given a six-month suspended sentence, following a conviction for insulting police officers during a court hearing for Palestinian protesters in July 2014.

Meanwhile, a new “precedent-setting” law has been proposed, approved by the coalition but whose final version has not yet been formally submitted. “The legislation would allow the Knesset, with a majority of 90 MKs, to suspend a colleague” for any of three reasons: “inciting to racism, inciting in support of terror or denying the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Photo & video story: Israel’s targeting of dissent and crackdown on it’s Arab citizens

In addition, the Knesset approved last week in a preliminary reading a new Yisrael Beiteinu-sponsored bill designed to “make it easier to disqualify Balad from running in the next election”, by barring anyone from running “who has incited verbally to terrorism.”

A new attack – but a familiar target

These new developments are part of “years-long efforts” to both remove Palestinian MKs from the Knesset and undermine challenges to Israel’s institutionalised racism, efforts that have even included legal prosecutions.

In 2007, then-Balad MK Azmi Bishara went into exile, after Israeli authorities accused him of passing information to Hezbollah. For Bishara, the “trumped-up charges” were “the latest in a series of attempts” to silence those “involved in the struggle of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to live in a state of all its citizens, not one that grants rights and privileges to Jews that it denies to non-Jews.”

In 2009, criminal charges were brought against former-MK Mohammed Barakeh for alleged offenses related to demonstrations against the Lebanon War in 2006. It took an extraordinary six years for him to be fully cleared of all charges, which Barakeh described as “political” and intended “to intimidate the Arab public from engaging in political activity.”

In April 2014, another Balad MK, Said Nafa, was convicted of an illegal visit to an enemy country and contact with a foreign agent, in relation to a Druze delegation’s visit to Syria he helped organise. He lost his Supreme Court appeal, and began a one year jail sentence in November 2015.

These serious legal attacks aside, there have been numerous attempts within the Knesset to punish Palestinian MKs, or to exclude them from elections entirely.

In June 2010, the Knesset revoked some of Haneen Zoabi’s parliamentary privileges in light of her participation in the Gaza-bound flotilla violently intercepted by the Israeli navy the month before. In 2011, Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset by the Ethics Committee for two months.

In July 2014, Zoabi was suspended for six months following remarks she made about the abduction of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. The Supreme Court later rejected a petition by Zoabi to overturn the suspension. The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Unionexpressed concern that Zoabi targeted “on account of having exercised her freedom of speech by expressing a political position.”

Attempts to ban Palestinian MKs from contesting elections are also nothing new. In 2009, the Central Elections Committee disqualified Balad and United Arab List-Ta’al. In December 2012, Haneen Zoabi was disqualified from standing for election, and again in February 2015. All three aforementioned decisions were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.

The point of no return?

It is possible, however, that the point of no return is being reached, and efforts to marginalise, smear, and harass Palestinian MKs will climax in their removal from the Knesset. One reason for this is that the current, Likud-led coalition government is aggressively nationalistic and right-wing, even by the standards of Israeli politics.

In 2012, Haneen Zoabi and two other MKs were lambasted for having met with the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) speaker Aziz Dweik three years previously. MK Miri Regev declared, “the time has come for Arab Knesset members to realize their place,” MK Yariv Levin said “the Arab MKs are competing who is the greatest traitor and terrorist sponsor”; and MK Tzipi Hotovely stated: “[Israel] must immediately remove the fifth column from the Knesset.”

Regev, Levin, and Hotovely are now respectively the Minister of Culture, Minister of Tourism, and Deputy Foreign Minister.

Netanyahu has also proved that his political currency is incitement and scapegoating, from his Election Day warning of Palestinians coming to the polls “in droves”, to the November 2015 decision to outlaw the Islamic Movement northern branch.

In the words of Palestinian writer and activist Amjad Iraqi, proscribing the Islamic Movement – using British Mandate-era ‘emergency regulations’ – was seen by many Palestinians as “the beginning of an intensified campaign against Arab political groups.” With the Balad party now the focus, this fear “a ‘domino effect’ are quickly being realized.”

It is not just the MKs of Likud and Jewish Home. Just this weekend, for example, MK Michael Oren of ‘centrist’ party Kulanu took to the pages of Newsweek to launch an error-strewn attack on Haneen Zoabi and other MKs, justifying attempts to limit their political activity (or remove them from the Knesset entirely) as protecting Israel’s “hard-won democracy.”

Furthermore, there is “almost no difference between the coalition and the opposition in the Knesset”, in the words of an editorial in Ha’aretz; the Zionist Camp representative in the Ethics Committee backed the recently-imposed suspensions, Labor chair Isaac Herzog expressed “revulsion at the Balad MKs’ actions”, and even Meretz “hasn’t refrained from toeing the nationalist line.”

The ‘sins’ of the Balad MKs in particular are to have demonstrated solidarity and forged strong links with Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as those Palestinians in the diaspora and their allies. Such an approach contradicts efforts made by the Israeli state since 1948 to fragment and isolate ‘Israeli Arabs’ from the wider Palestinian people.

Also read: MK Haneen Zoabi says Israel’s ‘political culture’ has moved ‘towards fascist values’

But Balad MKs also go beyond the pale in their demand for equality. As Haneen Zoabi wrote in the foreword to my 2012 book ‘Palestinians in Israel’, “the demand for a ‘state of all its citizens’ has put the Palestinians in Israel at the heart of the direct confrontation with the political rubric of ‘the Jewish state’ that epitomises the Zionist enterprise.”

The ‘state of all its citizens’ project has forced the ‘Jewish state’ to admit the primacy that it grants to Jewish-Zionist values over democratic values, and to recognise the impossibility of coexistence between the two.

Speaking to me this week about recent developments, Zoabi described a “new era”, where underlying recent events is “a clear deterioration towards fascist values”, adding: “it is not just a matter of ministers, but of a political culture.”

Zoabi pointed to surveys which she said show a growing distance from democratic values amongst Jewish Israeli youth. “Rather than seeing democracy as equality and human rights, now the only meaning of democracy in Israel is the rule of the – Jewish – majority.”

Balad has always said that Israel can be either Jewish or democratic. Now there is a recognition of this within the Israeli elite, and the public. But it is not a dilemma; they have decided, and they are justifying their decision to have a Jewish state.

Zoabi identified three reasons for this trend. First, Israel’s founding definition as a ‘Jewish state’, and the rejection or denial of Palestinians as an indigenous population. Second, the “vanishing of a political alternative”, and the emergence of a “consensus having a debate within itself.”

Third, Zoabi points to “the self-confidence” of Palestinian citizens themselves: “If you are weak, with no demands for democracy or the pride of the indigenous, then they are happy to be racist towards you in a liberal way. Now they feel we are getting more powerful as citizens, with political and civic awareness, to oppress us, they will need to be harsher.”

Proof of Israel’s ‘democracy’ – or the lack of it?

The Israeli government has long trumpeted the presence of ‘Israeli Arabs’ in the Knesset as proof of a vibrant ‘democracy’ and as a riposte to claims of systematic racism. This is cynical and irrelevant condescension; Palestinian citizens, and their elected representatives, are not immigrants, and a dozen MKs cannot mask discriminatory laws and policies in land, housing, education, and so on.

But tokenistic propaganda points aside, the presence and experience of Palestinians in the Knesset is indeed ‘proof’ – proof of the pre-eminence of the Israeli state’s ‘Jewish’ character, over its ‘democratic’ character, and the restrictions imposed on those who seek to change this.

Since 1948, more than 600 ministers have served in 34 governments; two of them have been non-Jews. No Arab party has ever been part of a ruling coalition. Proposed bills which “undermine Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people – as opposed to all its citizens – are thrown out.

Thus even the combined Joint List, with its 13 seats in the current Knesset, “face long-standing restrictions on their ability to challenge the structural, legal discrimination facing Palestinian citizens in Israel” – they are “inside the process – but they are outside of power.”

Israel imposed military rule on Palestinian citizens until 1966; according to Yigal Allon, thisprovided “a legal basis for actions taken against treasonous assemblies and so that traitors can be punished”, as well as “a basis to prevent and deter hostile political actions and organisations.”

In 2007, the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) said that it “will thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law” – an admission made in a letter to the editor of a Balad publication.

Yet even that is not enough for the radical nationalists in the Knesset and cabinet; now the law itself may need to be changed.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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