June 16, 2010

In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict

First-term Knesset member, 41, joined ships hoping to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, now accused of treason

Patrick Martin | June 13, 2010

Two weeks ago, she was virtually unknown. But after travelling aboard the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara, on which nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israeli commandos stormed the boat, Hanin Zoaby, a 41-year-old, first-term Knesset member, has become the most hated person in Israel.

As an Arab Israeli, she also has found herself at the centre of a new political force with which Israel will have to contend.

Accused of treason for supporting the Free-Gaza movement, forbidden by the courts to leave the country for 45 days, Ms. Zoaby was attacked, physically, when she spoke in the Knesset last week to explain her decision to join the flotilla of ships hoping to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. She said she viewed her action on behalf of 1.5 million “prisoners” in Gaza as a kind of “mitzvah,” a Hebrew term for a religious good deed. The reference only made her Jewish assailants angrier.

On Sunday, Israel proposed that a three-man internal inquiry probe its bloody attack on the flotilla two weeks ago, and that it be headed by a retired Israeli judge and two high-ranking foreign observers, including a Canadian.

Ms. Zoaby has been labelled an enemy, and a supporter of terrorists. Yet the unmarried, Western-dressed Muslim woman hails from one of Israel’s high-profile Arab families, one that has counted a high court judge, a mayor of Nazareth, a long-serving Knesset member and a deputy cabinet minister among its members.

To many in the Knesset today, Ms. Zoaby’s transgression, like that of the four other Arab Israelis who joined the flotilla, is unforgivable. A Knesset committee has recommended the removal of many of Ms. Zoaby’s parliamentary privileges, including her immunity from prosecution and her diplomatic passport. The Interior Minister, leader of Israel’s Ultra Orthodox Shas Party, has asked whether her Israeli citizenship can legally be revoked.

There have been dark days in the past for the Arabs of Israel, such as when six were killed in 1976 protesting the confiscation of large tracts of Arab Israeli land, or in 2000 when 13 were killed in riots that followed Ariel Sharon’s walk about the revered al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

And there have been periods when Arab Israelis have been treated as the enemy – during the state’s early years of martial law, and when they protested Israel’s assault on Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008.

But none has been darker or more hateful than this period, when these five Arab Israelis were seen to be aiding and abetting the enemy.

There have been death threats, hundreds of them.

In the wake of the flotilla incident, a Facebook site, called Execute Haneen Zuabi [sic], was established (and later taken down) and a group calling itself Pulsa Denura , (Aramaic for “lashes of fire”) says it has carried out elaborate death curses on several Arab Israelis, including Ahmad Tibi, a member of Knesset who wasn’t even on the flotilla.

(Pulsa Denura was the name of the group that said it had cursed Yitzhak Rabin shortly before he was assassinated, and cursed Ariel Sharon after he decided to evacuate Israeli settlements in Gaza in 2005.) Despite the threats, for which the Knesset has assigned her two security guards, Ms. Zoaby drove herself to a rally Saturday afternoon in her hometown of Nazareth at which she was being honoured.

Being in Nazareth, there was a mix of dress and attitudes: from conservative Muslim, to anything-goes Christian, with Ms. Zoaby, dressed in an open-neck white blouse and slacks, somewhere in the middle.

She beamed as she received the 400 people filing past her. And the people couldn’t have been more proud. She’s a hero to many of them – as a successful woman, successful Arab and, now, as a successful fighter.

“She did what few people would dare to do,” said Teres Zbidat, a Dutch-born woman who has lived with her husband in nearby Sakhnin for 16 years.

“Which is why Israelis hate her so much,” Ms. Zbidat said. “They see her as a success story that they allowed to happen. Then they say: ‘But you weren’t supposed to become one of them [the Palestinians].’ “

Ms. Zoaby explains the contempt for her as a reaction to the world criticism Israel is experiencing, similar to the backlash against Arab Israelis that followed criticism in the war against Hamas in Gaza.

“I embarrassed them,” she said, referring to Israelis. “I was an easy target for their revenge.”

Would she do it again, would she go on another flotilla? In a heartbeat, she says.

“I was appalled by the Israeli behaviour” on board the ship, she said. “I didn’t expect such violence.”

(Ms. Zoaby is credited by passengers with convincing the Israeli commandos – in her good Hebrew and tenacious style – with getting long-delayed medical treatment for the wounded.) What if doing it again meant losing her citizenship? “Yes,” she said determinedly. “It would just show that what they call citizenship is really just membership in the Zionist movement. It’s not real citizenship.”

“I want to be a full Israeli citizen,” Ms. Zuabi said at the time she was sworn into the Knesset last year, “but it must not come at the expense of my people’s collective rights to an identity and a past.”

Saturday’s Nazareth rally was most striking for the unity among Arab Israelis that it displayed.

The leaders of Israel’s badly divided Islamic movement shook hands and sat together; the head of the country’s anti-religious communist Hadash Party shook hands with the head of the Islamic movement and congratulated him on his participation in the flotilla.

And Raed Salah, that religiously conservative Islamic leader, actually declared Ms. Zoaby, that modern, unobservant Muslim, as “Woman of the Year.”

“We didn’t just break the blockade of Gaza,” Ms. Zoaby said. “We broke the blockade that divided the [19]48 Palestinians,” (an increasingly popular way of referring to Arab Israelis).

It seems they also broke the barrier between Arab Israelis and the Palestinians of the occupied territories, said Hadash leader Mohammed Barakeh.

“We’re no longer a minority,” he crowed.

Mariam Moustafa
Development and Communications Associate
Institute for Middle East Understanding
T: (714) 368-0300