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Israel’s woman of courage – and keeping the truth hidden

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. He withheld the information that Haneen Zoabi had not been involved in any violence on the Mavi Marmara. It was the claim that she had that led to the campaign of vilification against her and her (temporary) ban against standing in the election.  See item 3, this posting. For Zoabi’s comments on what she knew they knew but didn’t say, see the very revealing interview with her see I am a democrat and they are a rabble

What Israeli Arabs really want from their leaders
It’s not what the Jewish majority likes to believe.

By Larry Derfner, +972
January 8, 2013

A common Jewish Israeli criticism of Arab Knesset members is that they do a disservice to their constituents by focusing on high politics, mainly the Palestinian issue, instead of dealing with bread-and-butter economic issues that would really help them. (There may be something self-serving about this line of criticism, but who knows?) Last week I went to Jedeida-Makker, an Israeli Arab village a couple of miles inland from Acre, to hear Balad MK Haneen Zoabi give a campaign speech. The residents, including the local council head, indeed told her that she and her Arab colleagues in Knesset should concentrate more on the day-to-day problems of Arab citizens and less on the occupation. However, their complaints offered no vindication whatsoever to Israeli Jews who believe they know what’s best for the Arabs of this country, better than the Arabs do themselves.

The day-to-day, bread-and-butter economic problems the residents talked about all exemplified Israeli contempt for Arab rights. In other words, for Israeli Arabs, the issues they care most about are as highly political and uncomplimentary to Israel as can be.

Before Zoabi’s speech to about 50 people in a Balad campaign office, a local party activist and former Jedeida-Makker deputy council head, Mohasen Kais, showed me a court order he’d gotten a few weeks before. It said he owed the Israel Lands Authority – the state – about $80,000 for nearly a half-century of unpaid land use fees, and that if he didn’t pay it within 30 days, it was up to him to demolish the house and vacate the land, otherwise the “rightful” owner, the ILA, would do the job at his expense.

Kais, 60, says he’s lived in the house since his father bought it in the mid-1960s; his family lives on the top floor now while his brother’s family lives below. The Kaises come from what used to be a nearby Palestinian village – Mohasen said its name was Qurqurdani – that was destroyed in the 1948 war. The family migrated to different villages, to Lebanon, and finally in the early 1950s to Jedeida-Makker.

“First they destroyed our villages, took our land and made us refugees, now they want to do it again,” he said.

About three-quarters of Jedeida-Makker’s 19,000 people are former refugees and their descendants. Dozens of local households have received court orders like the one that arrived for Kais, said Abdallah Waked, an attorney and legal adviser to the local council. But the ILA’s campaign to collect or evict isn’t limited to Jedeida-Makker – it’s nationwide, Waked said, and it threatens the decades-old homes of untold numbers of Israeli Arabs. “The ILA decided on this policy in 2009, but only now started carrying it out intensively,” he said. “It’s going to be a big mess. These people don’t have that kind of money to pay, and they have nowhere to go.”

Waked also said he raised the issue with Zoabi a year ago, but it led nowhere. In the Q&A following her speech in the campaign office at the edge of town, one resident after another opened with warm words for her courage and dedication, but then implored her to give more attention to the routine sufferings of Israeli Arabs at the hands of the state’s ethnic discrimination.

“They built fences around this village, like in Gaza – we can’t expand, we have no master plan allowing us to develop, there’s no land for young couples to build homes on,” said Mohammed Shami, the local council head. He won the evening’s only interruption for applause when he urged Zoabi “to come visit more often, not just before an election.”

Another resident told her: “The Arab workers for Israel Railways in Lod have all been fired, there isn’t an Arab working there anymore. You people in the Knesset are asleep, you don’t know what’s going on.”

Zoabi defended her record, saying she devotes most of her time to the economic issues of Arab citizens, especially unemployment among Arab women, but it’s only her clashes with Israel over the Palestinians that interest the media.

She and the residents spoke in Arabic, which I don’t understand; all I had to go on from the meeting were a few comments translated by a man sitting next to me, then a 20-minute interview with Zoabi afterward. I don’t think she told me anything new; I’ll post my story when it’s published in Foreign Policy – here we go – but this long interview with Zoabi by Haaretz’s Dalia Karpel [ see Zoabi: ‘I am a democrat and they are a rabble’.would tell a great deal more about her.

The main news I have to report is that Zoabi is a charismatic speaker; she held people’s attention for nearly two hours. She seems very well-liked, too; after she was finished, many people came up to her with fairly reverent expressions on their faces. A trio of high school girls exchanged phone numbers with her, and one told me (in Hebrew), “She’s the only Arab woman who speaks for us, who gives us the courage to stand up to the racism.”

The other news from the campaign stop, like I said, is that whatever dissatisfactions Israeli Arabs have with their political representatives, ultimately their complaints are directed at Israel, and these have to do with injustice, past and present.

The Most Hated Woman in Israel

Haneen Zoabi has made her career speaking up for Israel’s Arab minority. In Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, that’s becoming harder each day.

By Larry Derfner, Foreign Policy
January 11, 2013

JEDEIDA-MAKKER, Israel — Sitting in a barren, slightly mildewy campaign office in this Arab village, I asked Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, what it was like being the country’s most hated politician. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” she said.

It’s easy to believe. Zoabi’s style is to head for the eye of the Arab-Jewish political storm — the result being that while she is the Jewish majority’s most hated politician, she may well be the Arab minority’s most beloved.

Zoabi is running for reelection in Israel’s Jan. 22 parliamentary election, but it was a struggle to even reach this point. Right-wing Knesset members moved to have her disqualified, saying she had “undermined the state of Israel” and “openly incited” against the government. Only a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court in late December overturned the ban. A poll published in Haaretz indicated that her legal victory stood to gain her small, virtually all-Arab party an additional Knesset seat.

Zoabi, 43, petite and pretty in black jacket, slacks, and pointed heels — a modern, single woman in a conservative, patriarchal Arab subculture — had just exhorted some 50 local residents to “use all the democratic tools at our disposal to carry on the struggle.” She urged them not to be what she derided as “good Arabs,” those who “thank Israel every day for not expelling them in 1948, who think they are not equal to Jewish citizens.”

She had held the audience’s attention for nearly two hours. In the front row sat middle-aged Arab women in Islamic headscarves next to high school girls in jeans. Afterward, amid the stream of well-wishers, the girls came up and exchanged phone numbers with her. “She’s the only Arab woman who speaks for us, who gives us the courage to stand up to the racism,” said one.

Zoabi, who hails from one of the most prominent families in Israeli Arab society, has not pulled her punches against the Israeli government. Israel has visited systematic injustice on its Arab minority — not to mention the Palestinians — but her views still seem excessively one-sided. Asked once by an Israeli TV interviewer whether she could say anything good about Israel, she laughed lightly and replied, “No, I can’t.”

But she is also far from the sinister threat to Israel’s existence that her enemies make her out to be. She is not an advocate of terrorism or of throwing the Jews out of the country. Zoabi represents a minority of second-class citizens who, with very rare exceptions, are politically nonviolent. She rejects Israel as a country founded on the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians, advocates the right of return to Israel for the millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and wants to transform the country from an explicitly “Jewish state,” with all its official and unofficial discrimination against non-Jews, into a fully egalitarian “state of all its citizens.” It sounds appealing — until you try to imagine Arabs being drafted alongside Jews to fight for this country, if called upon, against Arab enemies.

It’s not just Zoabi who has come under fire. Israeli Arabs, who make up 21 percent of Israel’s 8 million people, have become increasingly feared, distrusted, and shunned by mainstream Jewish society. The rightward drift of the Israeli public since the watershed 2000 Palestinian Intifada and, especially during the four years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, has taken its toll on coexistence within Israel. Fully 67 percent of Israeli Jews won’t even drive into an Israeli Arab town or village, Haifa University Prof. Sammy Smooha, the country’s leading pollster of Jewish-Arab attitudes, found last year.

It’s a foregone conclusion that voters this month will give Netanyahu an even more nationalistic government than he’s got now. The Likud Party — in whose ranks Netanyahu is now a relative liberal — is running on a joint ticket with Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of ex-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a one-time member of the racist Kach movement who has said he hoped his Arab colleagues would one day be executed. Meanwhile, the rising star of the campaign is Naftali Bennett, who advocates annexing most of the West Bank to Israel and weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to rein in the government and army.

Zoabi is a lightning rod for this antagonistic spirit in the country, and a barometer of it. She became Israel’s Public Enemy No. 1 on May 31, 2010, as an Israel Arab activist aboard the Mavi Marmara, a ship chartered by a Turkish Muslim aid organization to lead the flotilla challenging Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. After unarmed Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship and were attacked with wooden clubs and metal rods, armed Israeli soldiers stormed the ship and shot nine Turkish activists to death. A U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) panel interviewed more than 100 activists from the ship and concluded, “a number of passengers were injured or killed whilst trying to take refuge … or assisting others to do so,” and that the commandos “continued shooting at passengers who had already been wounded.”

Israel brushed the report off as typical UNHRC bias, and by that time the nation had been convinced that the commandos acted in self-defense against a murderous mob of jihadists. The Israeli army, which confiscated hours of footage of the incident, released a single, brief segment showing the crowd attacking the first unarmed commandos and throwing one over a railing to the deck below. This is the one image Israelis have of the Mavi Marmara incident — and it shaped the political climate to which Zoabi, who says she stayed below decks during the confrontation, returned home.

“For about a year and a half I was getting letters, e-mails, and telephone calls from people saying, ‘You are a terrorist, a traitor, a piece of shit, we will get you, you and all the traitors,'” she said.

The blowback reached her in the Knesset, where her privileges as an elected representative of the Israeli people were taken away from her. She was stripped of her diplomatic passport, her right to participate in Knesset discussions, and her right to vote in committee debates. Once, while Zoabi was speaking from the Knesset podium amidst catcalls, Anastassia Michaeli of Lieberman’s extreme right-wing party advanced on her, screaming, and had to be restrained by guards, who then hustled Zoabi out of the chamber.

The assaults continued. When she went to the Supreme Court with supporters Dec. 26 to file her appeal against being disqualified from the campaign, she again had to be protected by police as right-wing radicals shouted “terrorist” as she passed. “Sometimes, not always, when I go to [a mixed Jewish-Arab suburb of Nazareth], or to the airport, or Jerusalem, people say these sorts of things to me. In the supermarket I’ve heard people tell the cashier not to serve me,” she said.

On Dec. 30, the day Zoabi won her Supreme Court appeal, another Israeli Arab Knesset member, Ahmed Tibi, was leaving a university lecture hall after an angry debate with a far-right Knesset member when a teenage girl came up and spat on him, calling him a “child-murderer.” Tibi blamed it on anti-Arab “incitement” emanating from the political arena.

He had a point: The Israeli political arena is becoming more inhospitable to the country’s Arab minority. In the last couple of years, Israel has witnessed arson attacks by Jewish settlers on mosques and churches; a law barring Arab municipalities and other state-funded institutions from memorializing the 1948 “Nakba” — Arabs’ term for the “catastrophe” of their exile and destruction during Israel’s War of Independence — and a raft of other anti-Arab legislation, including a bill that would have barred mosques from using loudspeakers in their calls to prayer. Netanyahu initially supported the bill, saying, “We don’t need to be more liberal than Europe,” but his more temperate colleagues eventually convinced him to change his mind, dooming the legislation.

As Israel gears up for the Jan. 22 vote, Zoabi says she sees a rise in “Arab national pride” in this campaign. But as for the campaign going on among the country’s Jewish majority, she sees the situation going from bad to worse. “This has been a more racist campaign than others,” she said. “And politically, none of the strong [Zionist parties] are presenting a real alternative to Netanyahu.”

Smooha said fewer and fewer Israeli Arabs are voting in national elections because they’re growing increasingly alienated from the state. No surprise there: It’s not just Haneen Zoabi — the Arab minority in general gets a cold reception in this country. And with the right-wing parties growing more extreme and more popular, it’s likely to get even colder.

Cover-up led to anti-Zoabi campaign

Attorney General concealed information that would have cleared Arab MK of any wrongdoing during Gaza flotilla

By Sawsan Zaher, Op-ed, JPost
January 03, 2012

The request to disqualify Balad MK Hanin Zoabi from running in the elections for the 19th Knesset raises serious questions regarding the easiness in which an Arab Knesset member can be delegitimized and demonized – to the point where she is branded a terrorist. The Knesset revoked some of Zoabi’s privileges following her participation in the Gaza-bound flotilla, and the attempt to physically attack her while she was addressing the plenum was the only such incident in the House’s history. In addition, numerous MKs hurled insulting sexist slurs at her – all due to her participation in the flotilla.

Most regrettable is the fact that those in charge of the investigation knew the truth, but not one of them, including the attorney general, told the public the truth about Zoabi’s involvement. While the attorney general did oppose her disqualification, he did not reveal to the public, the Supreme Court or the Central Elections Committee the information he had, which would have exonerated the Arab MK of all the allegations against her. Zoabi’s attorneys disclosed to the Supreme Court the details of AG Weinstein’s investigation after obtaining the information accidentally while working on another case.

The investigation conducted by the attorney general, who watched footage from the Mavi Marmara, concluded that there was no evidence indicating that Zoabi was involved in the violence that transpired when Israeli commandoes raided the Turkish vessel. A governmental committee headed by Judge Turkel also investigated the incident and found that Zoabi was not connected to the violence. The state comptroller, who also investigated the incident, drew the same conclusion. But the attorney general did not disclose these findings to the government.

During the Central Elections Committee’s deliberations, those who demanded that Zoabi be disqualified claimed that the MK expressed support for IHH, the group behind the Gaza flotilla. The disqualification clause bans MKs from running in the elections if it is proven that they support the armed struggle of a terrorist organization against the State of Israel. But in his response to the committee and the Supreme Court, the attorney general failed to mention that the government designated IHH as a terror organization long after the Gaza flotilla.

The Zoabi affair must concern the entire public, which did not receive relevant information from the law enforcement agencies. What should concern us most is the possibility that these agencies did not speak up for fear of criticism from the political establishment. The AG’s silence over the past two years and the failure to reveal relevant information to the Supreme Court and the Elections Committee must concern all of Israel’s citizens, but particularly the Arabs. In cases where incitement and the spreading of lies reach the level of revoking privileges, you may find out that the law enforcement agencies will not protect you.

The attorney general should have acted more responsibly and declared that MK Zoabi was not involved in any illicit activity. Such a statement would have possibly hurt his popularity a bit, but it could have prevented a two-year incitement and demonization campaign against an elected official.

Sawsan Zaher is an attorney at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. She represented MK Zoabi in the disqualification case

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