Palestine Monitor, 15 July 2010
On Tuesday, Israeli ministers voted to strip MK Haneen Zouabi of her parliamentary privileges for participating in the Gaza flotilla. The motion, carried by a 34-16 majority in a special committee, is the first of its kind in Knesset (Israeli parliament) history. Prominent academics and representatives of civil rights groups have condemned the decision.
The ruling is not expected to impact severely on Zouabi’s ministerial duties, but is a reflection of right-wing anger over her travelling on the aid flotilla to Gaza in May. The first female Arab Knesset member has been stripped of her diplomatic passport, her right to have litigation fees covered has been revoked and she is no longer permitted to leave the country.
Zouabi has been the target for hostility since her return from the ill-fated Mavi Marmara , on which nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli commandos. Her speeches in the Knesset have been marked by chants of ‘terrorist’ and ‘traitor’ from the floor. During one heated exchange this month, video footage showed MKs attempting to physically attack her.
Yesterday, MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who chaired the committee on rescinding her privileges, told Zouabi “you are unworthy of holding an Israeli ID and you embarrass the citizens of Israel, the Knesset, the Arab population and your family“. Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union party, a prominent supporter of the ruling announced “the people of Israel don’t want to see Zouabi in the Knesset.” The attacks reached a farcical level when MK Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) presented Zouabi with a home-made Iranian passport, because of her “loyalty to Iran”.
House speaker Reuben Rivlin, who opposed the ruling despite disagreeing with Zouabi’s actions, commented “I believe that everyone should have the right to speak their minds, even if what they say hurts me.”
It is a view shared by Naomi Chazan, former Knesset speaker, MK and current president of the New Israel Fund (NIF), the umbrella group which supports most Israeli human rights groups. “This is the first time in history a Knesset member has been punished in this way, it is unprecedented. You can disagree with what she did but if you suppress freedom of speech and association, it’s a slippery slope. This is part of an increasing, systematic attempt to curtail freedom of speech and because this is a Knesset member its particularly significant. She is representing the opinion of her voters which is precisely her job and if you move away from that principle your entering very dangerous territory.”
Dr. Keudon Rahat, senior political lecturer at the Hebrew university criticised the ruling as ‘undemocratic’. “The danger here is politicians using their power as a majority to attack minorities. I don’t like Zouabi, to me she is as nationalist as (Foreign Minister) Avigdor Lieberman, but she is in no way a threat so the decision is not justified.”
Zouabi herself felt the ruling represented part of a wider campaign against Israel’s Arab citizens, who account for 18% of the population. She recently went on record saying “80% of new laws passed in the Knesset are against Arabs”. Certainly Arab politicians are under increasing pressure. Last week the High Court ordered the expulsion of four elected Hamas officials from their East Jerusalem residences, while Sheikh Raed Salah has just received a five month prison sentence for allegedly spitting on a border guard.
“Israel treats Palestinians not as citizens but as enemies. This hostile dealing comes across all institutions, not just politically or in the Knesset, but also the court system, which is supposed to protect the rights of its citizens,” Zouabi said after the ruling.