Haneen Zoabi: The largest threat to Zionism is democracy

Haneen Zoabi speaking in Tel Aviv, July 2010. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

On 13 July, the Israeli Knesset voted by a large margin to strip the parliamentary privileges of Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Palestinian Israeli party Balad. The measure was a punishment for Zoabi’s participation in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As described in the Israeli daily Haaretz, during the raging debate, Member of Knesset (MK) Anasatassia Michaeli rushed toward Zoabi and handed her a mock Iranian passport with Zoabi’s photo on it. “Ms. Zoabi, I take your loyalty to Iran seriously and I suggest you contact Ahmadinejad and ask him to give you an Iranian diplomatic passport that will assist you with all your diplomatic incitement tours, because your Israeli passport will be revoked this evening,” said Michaeli, who is a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s explicitly anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party (“Knesset revokes Arab MK Zuabi’s privileges over Gaza flotilla,” 13 July 2010).

The debate over revoking Zoabi’s parliamentary privileges was nearly as rancorous as her appearance at the Knesset speaker’s podium in the immediate wake of the Flotilla massacre. While Zoabi attempted to relate her experience on the Mavi Marmara, where she coaxed Israeli commandoes to stop shooting and beating passengers, Knesset members from a broad array of parties leapt from their chairs to shout her down. “Go to Gaza, traitor!” shouted MK Miri Regev of Likud. “One week in Gaza as a 38-year-old single woman and we’ll see how they treat you!” barked Yohanan Plesner of the supposedly centrist Kadima party. Finally, Moshe Mutz Matalon of Yisrael Beiteinu lamented that the Israeli commandoes “left only nine floating voters” (“MK Regev tells Zoabi: Go to Gaza, traitor!,” YNet, 2 June 2010).

I met Zoabi at her office in the bustling center of Lower Nazareth on 12 June. While preparing a spread of biscuits and chocolates for me, she told me that a reporter from Nablus who met her earlier in the day had been detained at a checkpoint and had her laptop seized. Zoabi was convinced that the Shin Bet (Israel’s General Security Service) was monitoring her communications and movements as it does with many Balad Party leaders. Despite the tense climate and violent threats against her, she spoke without restraint about her experience on the Mavi Marmara, the predicament of Palestinian members of the Knesset, and what she considered the fascist direction of Israeli society.

Max Blumenthal: Were you surprised to be greeted with such hostility when you returned to the Knesset after the flotilla incident?

Hanin Zoabi: I was not so surprised. I expected to be called traitor, to be asked, “Where are your knives?” Or to be told, “You are the one who killed them!” But they shouted at me without any political argument and such shallowness. I thought, this couldn’t be a parliament, these are just gangsters. If I gave them guns, they would shoot me. I said the soldiers on the flotilla treated me more respectfully than them. At least after the soldiers killed nine people they tried to ask me for help.

MB: What does the attack on you in Knesset say about Israeli democracy?

HZ: Israel has a general atmosphere of a fascist state that has no critical sense even of its image in the world. It used to be sensitive to its image of democracy. [Knesset Speaker Reuven] Rivlin wants a liberal state and wants others to believe Israel is a democracy. But listen to what they are saying in the Knesset: that we should only pay attention to what we want to; it’s not important to pay attention to the goyim. We must believe we are the victim as if victimhood is an ideology.

MB: Are you concerned about threats to your physical safety?

HZ: This is a dangerous time and it is dangerous for Jamal [Zehalka] and others in Balad. I am worried but what worries me more is not the personal threats but the long term political effect of this campaign because it represents a delegitimization of our party and our political platform.

MB: What about the planned measure in the Knesset to strip you of parliamentary privileges?

HZ: The three parliamentary sanctions are nothing — I mean nothing — because I can still use my civic passport.

MB: When you were attacked in the Knesset, I was reminded of an incident in 1949, when the first Arab member of Knesset, Tawfiq Toubi, took to the floor to denounce Israeli army brutality against Palestinian villagers living under military rule. Jewish members of the Knesset went crazy just as they did against you, but Toubi was defended by one of Israel’s most prominent cultural figures, the socialist poet Nathan Alterman. Did any prominent Israelis speak up in your defense, and if not, why not?

HZ: Hardly anyone spoke up for me. Jamal [Zehalka] said the Knesset is the worst we’ve ever had. The guards and the workers who’ve been around the Knesset for 30 years said it’s never been this racist before. I think when you have a government led by the likes of [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman it means that the extremists are not the margins of the Knesset, they are the mainstream. Those who shouted at me were from Kadima, not from the extreme right. Even [the traditionally left-wing party] Meretz is becoming very center. And because of this it has lost power.

[Knesset Speaker] Rivlin was more afraid of hurting the image of the Knesset than of my rights being violated. There are no limits and the famous slogan of Lieberman is now the slogan of everyone: “Citizenship depends on loyalty.” He of course means loyalty in a fascist sense. Even when [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai asked to revoke my citizenship there was only one article in the Israeli media saying that this was crazy. What kind of state is this? I read just one article about this!

[Yedioth Aharanot columnist] Amnon Levy was the only one who defended me. He said what’s happening is so absurd, you should thank Haneen that she is serving in this Zionist Knesset. You should thank the Palestinians for participating in our game.

MB: Is the anti-Arab atmosphere inside Israel a new phenomenon or the acceleration of a process than began some time ago?

HZ: This is not a new process, and it didn’t begin after the flotilla. It really began after the second intifada, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Israelis went to demonstrations not to rally about internal issues but to support the intifada. This was a clear message for Israelis that the state had failed to create the model of the new “Israeli Arab.” This is what the state was trying to do, trying to create us an Israeli Arab, someone who was not 100 percent Israeli because we were not Jews but of course not 100 percent Arab either. We were told we could preserve our language and our culture but not our historical memory, our culture, or our identity except on an emotional, romantic level. Essentially we couldn’t be Palestinian.

The second intifada was the turning point. It told Israel that it might control the schools, our history and the media but they couldn’t stop us from asserting our identity. This led directly to the declaration of Yuval Diskin, the Shin Bet director, who said in 2007, we will fight against any political activity that doesn’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state even if the activities are conducted openly and democratically. He clearly was referring to Balad when he said this. By the way, no Israeli paper was shocked by his statement.

MB: The founder of the Balad Party, Azmi Bishara, was forced into exile after being accused of spying for Hizballah. Ameer Makhoul, the Palestinian civil society leader in Israel, has been placed under administrative detention and is facing similar accusations. Omer Said and many other activists are under investigation by the Shin Bet. What is the government trying to accomplish by its crackdown?

HZ: They are trying to establish borders on our political identity and say that we cannot have relations with the broader Arab world. They want to redefine the margins of democracy to exclude any political program that calls for full equality. We are calling for equality without Zionism. This is what the Balad Party says. The fact is, to demand full civic and national equality is actually to demand the end of Zionism. So we don’t hate Zionism. Zionism hates democracy.

If the state continues in the direction it is going it will actually change the rules of the game. Balad says there are clear margins of democracy. We believe in democratic values and the system and we will utilize these margins of democracy in order to suggest our vision of full equality. If Israel wants to delete these margins so my vision can no longer be legitimate in the Israeli scene I think a totally different game will develop between us and the state. In this way, the state is pushing us to a crisis. If they disqualify Balad then no Arab party would enter the Knesset and this would provoke a huge crisis. Arabs without a parliamentary role would result in a different kind of relationship between us and the state. This would be the end of democracy. But we know this is what a Jewish state will lead to — the end of democracy is an inevitable outcome.

MB: How did your prominence after the flotilla impact the situation of Palestinians in Israel?

HZ: It is possible that the flotilla was the beginning of a new historical moment. Israel enjoys keeping us [Palestinians in Israel] out of the agenda of the world. They oppressed us behind the scenes just as they conducted the Nakba behind the scenes. They continued to limit our identity and the world didn’t treat us as part of the Palestinian issue because it believed that Israel was a democracy and we were only part of it. The world only looked at the siege of Gaza. So what the Knesset did by attacking me was they showed the world who they really are. And if the world starts to pay attention, especially the part of the world that doesn’t traditionally support the Palestinians and believes Israel should be a real democracy, I hope they see from the flotilla and its implications that Israel has a deep structural problem, not a problem of policies. The problem is not an extremist government. The problem is that the largest threat to Zionism is democracy. This is the issue.

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author working in Israel-Palestine. His articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Huffington Post, Salon.com, Al-Jazeera English and many other publications. He is a writing fellow for the Nation Institute. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.