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Tuesday, March 11, 2014
- “Every woman is a woman of frustration. Me, I’m just struggle.” Hanin Zoabi, 41, is a Palestinian Israeli woman, a fighting woman. An elected member of the Israeli Knesset parliament, she is the first woman on an Arab party’s list, Balad. The political and social upheavals in the Arab world have inflamed Zoabi’s emotions. In a recent solidarity demonstration here, she rejoiced: “The power has been returned to the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples. The creation of Palestine is also an expression of the power of the people’s rights. We can also free ourselves of the Israeli occupation.”
That said, the Arab world according to Zoabi still needs to change – not just internally. “Israel has relied on weaknesses, of the Arab allies to the Palestinian cause and of the Palestinian Authority,” she ponders back in her office in this mixed Israeli town of Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians.
“It succeeded to redefine the struggle from resistance to the occupation to state-building. My struggle is to end the occupation, to dismantle the settlements, to return to the 1967 borders. I don’t care if, at the end, we reach a two-state or a one-state solution. I care about equality.”
Arab Israelis constitute 20 percent of the population of Israel. Like many of her constituency, Zoabi identifies herself fully as Palestinian. This affirmation of self is not, however, without inner contradiction. After all, she can fight for democracy inside Israel.
When your state and your people are at war, identity and acceptance are not just contradicting forces – they’re a predicament, a 63-year old reality. During Israel’s war of independence (the Great Catastrophe for the Palestinians), within two years, from a majority on the land of Mandatory Palestine, the Arabs became a minority in the land of Israel. “We have accepted the change,” Zoabi stresses. “But we didn’t immigrate to Israel, Jews immigrated. We stayed in our homeland.”
Most Arab Israelis are split between their aspiration to be fully accepted citizens of their state, Israel, and a desire to be wholly linked to their people, the Palestinians. Some Jews see them as a ‘fifth column’, others as a potential bridge to peace. Many in the Arab world adjudge them to be ‘collaborators’.
In contrast to their Palestinian brethren in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, this national minority represented by Zoabi and other lawmakers are full citizens. Still, they suffer discrimination – in employment, education, municipal budgets, and land allocation. “We’re treated not as full citizens and not as indigenous people, but as second-class citizen,” she protests.
Besides, Arab women doubly suffer the brunt of inequality. “In Israeli there are 30 laws which legally discriminate against the Palestinian citizens. For example, I cannot marry a Palestinian from Ramallah or Gaza, or from Lebanon or Syria and have a family here, because Israel wants to preserve a Jewish majority.”
Zoabi rejects the vision of a Jewish State advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and many of the laws passed by the rightwing-dominated legislature, like the law introduced a few months ago whereby non-Jewish prospective citizens would have to pledge their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Zoabi opposes this notion of loyalty because “once Israel is ‘Jewish’, that means privileges to the Jews at our expense. There can be no real equality. I want a fully-democratic, liberal state, a state for all its citizens, Jewish and Palestinians.”
A fiery woman, she’s been under fire for much of her Knesset tenure. More than her unsettling rhetoric at deconstructing the national ethos of most Jewish Israelis, it’s her actions which irk them most.
In May, Zoabi joined the “Free Gaza” flotilla against the Israeli blockage on Hamas-led Gaza. Israeli commandos conducted a botched assault on the flotilla. She was aboard the MV Marmara on which nine Turkish activists were killed.
Addressing the Knesset shortly after, she described the Israeli raid as a “pirate military operation.” She had to face the assault of Jewish lawmakers. “Go to Gaza, traitor!” they shouted in the plenum. Two security guards were assigned for her protection after she received death threats on Facebook.
“We managed to break the silence. You keep 1.5 million Palestinians in prison and you want no one to talk about it – you cannot!” she says, not hiding her satisfaction. Eventually, Israel eased the siege.
But the outcome of the flotilla attack didn’t ease the harassment. Zoabi was then accused of misusing her parliamentary immunity to protect her from prosecution. The Knesset voted to strip her of three parliamentary privileges: the right to have a diplomatic passport; entitlement to financial assistance should she require legal assistance; and, the right to visit countries with which Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations – a clear reminder of another controversial action.
In April, Zoabi had joined a delegation of Arab Israeli leaders who had met with Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The much-publicized photos of their meeting with the Libyan ruler have come back to haunt them. They are now faced with uncomfortable questions about what’s now perceived as unsavoury pandering to one of the most authoritarian Arab leaders.
“They said, ‘You met with an enemy. You violated the law.’ Now, they say, ‘Why did you meet with Gaddafi, he’s undemocratic.’ The Arab regimes which have relations with Israel, they’re all undemocratic,” Zoabi notes unabashedly. “We met Gaddafi to send a very clear message to the Arab world: We are part of you. We’re not just an internal Israeli issue. The Arab world cannot sign agreements with Israel while ignoring our reality as Palestinians inside Israel. This has to change.”
When urged by Gaddafi to balance Israel’s power with demography, by marrying more than one woman as Islam permits, Zoabi replied, “You must apologise not only to me, but to whoever disagrees with you.”
She acknowledges her battles are Sisyphean. “I don’t care about the end, I care about the direction,” she says.
Yet, she cannot forget that while she’s been elected to represent a national minority fighting for equal rights, she is also an Arab woman fighting for equal rights. “I endure national and social discrimination, as a Palestinian, as a woman. I must also struggle for equality inside my society. It’s so difficult.”