The Israeli parliament has voted overwhelmingly to suspend Haneen Zoabi, a legislator representing the state’s large Palestinian minority, for six months as a campaign to silence political dissent intensified.
The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, voted by 68 to 16 to endorse a decision in late July by its ethics committee to bar Zoabi from the chamber for what it termed “incitement”.
It is the longest suspension in the Knesset’s history and the maximum punishment allowed under Israeli law. At a press conference, Zoabi denounced her treatment as “political persecution”.
“By distancing me from the Knesset, basically they’re saying they don’t want Arabs, and only want ‘good Arabs’,” she said. “We won’t be ‘good Arabs’.”
The Knesset’s confirmation of Zoabi’s suspension comes as she faces a criminal trial for incitement in a separate case and as the Knesset considers stripping her of citizenship.
But Zoabi is not the only Palestinian representative in the firing line. Earlier this year the Knesset raised the threshold for election to the parliament, in what has been widely interpreted as a bid to exclude all three small parties representing the Palestinian minority. One in five citizens of Israel are Palestinian.
It has also emerged last week that a bill is being prepared to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, the only extra-parliamentary party widely supported by Palestinian citizens.
Along with Zoabi, the Islamic Movement’s leader, Sheikh Raed Salah, has been among the most vocal critics of Israeli policies, especially over the al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied Jerusalem.
Zoabi was originally suspended after legislators from all the main parties expressed outrage at a series of comments from her criticiseing Israel’s July-August assault on Gaza, which left more than 2100 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians.
Zoabi faced a wave of death threats and needed a bodyguard for public appearances.
Faina Kirschenbaum, the deputy interior minister in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, has also drafted two bills directly targeting Zoabi.
The first would strip someone of the right to stand for the Knesset if they are found to have supported “an act of terrorism”, while the second would strip them of Israeli citizenship.
Zoabi further infuriated fellow members of Knesset this month when she compared the Israeli army to the Islamic State, the jihadist group that has violently taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq and has become notorious for kidnapping Westerners and beheading them.
Zoabi described an Israeli Air Force pilot as “no less a terrorist than a person who takes a knife and commits a beheading”.
She added that “both are armies of murderers, they have no boundaries and no red lines”.
Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, was among those who responded by calling Zoabi a “terrorist”.
“The law must be used to put the terrorist ― there is no other word for it ― the terrorist Haneen Zoabi in jail for many years,” he told Israel Radio.
A poll this month found that 85% of the Jewish Israeli public wanted Zoabi removed from the Knesset.
Awad Abdel Fattah, the secretary general of Balad, a political party representing Palestinians in Israel, said: “There is a great deal of frustration among Israeli politicians and the public at their army’s failure to defeat the Palestinian resistance in Gaza.
“At times like this, the atmosphere of repression intensifies domestically.”
The initiatives against Zoabi are the most visible aspects of a wider campaign to silence all political dissent from the Palestinian minority.
Last month, it emerged that the Knesset is to vote on legislation to give Jewish religious extremists greater access to the al-Asqa mosque compound. Already, large numbers of Jews, many of them settlers, regularly venture onto esplanade, backed by armed Israeli police.
They include Jewish extremists who expressly want to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque so that a replica of a Jewish temple from 2000 years ago can be built in its place.
Last week, Yehuda Glick, a leader of one of these extremist groups, was shot and wounded in Jerusalem. In response, Israel shut down al-Aqsa for the first time since the outbreak of the second intifada 14 years ago.
Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, called it a “declaration of war”.
According to the text of Lieberman’s bill, the northern wing of the Islamic Movement “subverts the State of Israel’s sovereignty while making cynical use of the institutions and fundamental values of the Jewish and democratic state”.
It also blames the movement for “an eruption of violence and unrest among the Arab minority in Israel, while maintaining close relations with the terrorist organization Hamas”.
The attacks on Zoabi and the Islamic Movement come in the wake of legislation in March to raise the electoral threshold ― from 2% to 3.25% ― for a party to win representation in the Knesset.
The new threshold is widely seen as having been set to exclude the three Palestinian parties now in the Knesset. The Palestinian vote is split almost evenly between three political streams.
Zoabi’s Balad party emphasises the need for the Palestinian minority to build its own national institutions, especially in education and culture, to withstand the efforts of Israel’s Zionist institutions to strip Palestinian citizens of their rights and erase their identity.
Its chief demand has been for “a state for all its citizens” ― equal rights for Jewish and Palestinian citizens.
Balad’s chief rival is the joint Jewish-Arab party Hadash, whose Communist ideology puts a premium on a shared program of action between Jewish and Arab citizens. However, its Jewish supporters have shrunk to a tiny proportion of the party. It too campaigns for equal rights.
And the third party, Raam-Taal, is a coalition led by prominent Islamic politicians.
The three parties have 11 seats between them in the 120-member Knesset, with one held by a Jewish member of Knesset, Dov Chenin, for Hadash.
Abdel Fattah said his Balad party had been urging the other parties to create a coalition for the next general election to overcome the new threshold.
So far, it has faced opposition from Hadash, which is worried that an alliance with Balad would damage its image as a joint Jewish-Arab party. A source in Hadash told Israeli daily Haaretz in September: “Hadash is not an Arab party, and there’s no reason it should unite with two Arab parties.”
Fattah said Hadash’s objections were unreasonable given that both Balad and the Islamic faction believed it was important to include Jewish candidates on a unified list.
“Eventually they will have to come round to a joint list unless they want to commit political suicide,” he remarked.
Over the past 30 years, turnout among Palestinian citizens has dramatically fallen to little more than half of potential voters. The minority has seen its political demands for equality greeted with a wave of laws entrenching discrimination.
Among the anti-democratic measures passed in recent years are laws that penalise groups commemorating the Nakba, the Palestinians’ dispossession of their homeland in 1948; that provide a statutory basis to admissions committees, whose function is to prevent Palestinian citizens living on most of Israel’s territory; and that make it impossible for most Palestinian citizens to bring a Palestinian spouse to live with them in Israel.
Recently, Balad MKs boycotted the opening ceremony of the Knesset in protest at Zoabi’s treatment.
At a press conference in the parliament, her colleague, Basel Ghattas, warned: “The day is approaching when Arab MKs will think there is no use participating in the political sphere. We are discovering more and more that we are personae non gratae at the Knesset.”
On Facebook, Lieberman responded that he hoped the Arab MKs would “carry out this ‘threat’ as soon as possible”.
The growing uncompromising stance towards all the Palestinian minority’s political factions marks a shift in policy, even for the right.
Although no Israeli government coalition has ever included a Palestinian party, and the Nasserist al-Ard movement was banned in the 1960s, Jewish politicians have generally viewed it as safer to keep the Palestinian parties inside the Knesset.
Analyst Uzi Baram observed in Haaretz that even Menachem Begin, a former hardline prime minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, believed it would be unwise to raise the threshold to keep out Arab parties.
If they were excluded, Baram wrote, it was feared “they would resort to non-parliamentary actions”.
Zoabi petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court against her suspension from the Knesset in early October. However, the judges suggested she first use an arcane appeal procedure before the Knesset’s full plenum to demonstrate she had exhausted all available channels for lifting the suspension.
Aeyal Gross, a constitutional law professor at Tel Aviv University, warned that the Knesset’s treatment of Zoabi was “paving the way towards fascism and tyranny”.
[Abridged from Electronic Intifada. Jonathan Cook has won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair. His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.]