Jerusalem — When a government probe into allegations of treason caused the charismatic Arab politician Azmi Bishara to resign his Knesset seat and flee Israel in 2007, Dr. Ahmad Tibi, a former aide to PLO leader Yasir Arafat, leaped easily to the fore as his community’s most prominent national advocate. Like Bishara, he gained notice, too, as the Arab sector’s sharpest goad against Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state.
By turns dramatic, acerbic, outrageous and moving, Tibi, who heads the Israeli Arab party Ra’am-Ta’al, an acronym for Arab Movement for Renewal, has provoked many Israeli Jews with his knack for elegantly crafted verbal spitballs. But now, Tibi has become embroiled in a controversy that goes beyond mere political fisticuffs, after he was shown on video praising Palestinian “martyrs” — a word commonly used in Arab political discourse to describe both terrorists who die while committing acts of violence against Israeli civilians and Arabs who die, unarmed, by Israel’s hand.
Read Forward columnist Philologos’ piece about the linguistic issues raised by Ahmad Tibi’s racy poem about a right-wing Knesset colleague.
The video, released by Palestinian Media Watch on January 18, was purportedly taken last year at a Ramallah rally for the annual Palestinian Martyrs Day. “The occupier wants us to call them terrorists, but we say there is nothing greater than those who died for their homeland,” Tibi declared to the crowd. He also said that the martyr “holds the height of glory.”
Tibi, who is a deputy speaker of the Knesset, insists that he rejects violence and was referring only to Arabs who were killed by Israeli forces, not to people who harm civilians. And he says that the release of a clip edited to imply otherwise is part of a growing campaign to delegitimize Arab lawmakers.
“It’s a sport in this Knesset to attack Arab members,” he said during an interview in his office, arguing that the current parliamentary term is the “worst and most racist” that he has served in.
Tibi showed the Forward a clip from his speech at this year’s Palestinian Martyrs Day rally, on January 7, where he named people he considers “martyrs,” all of whom were civilians killed by Israel and none of whom perpetrated attacks. By editing last year’s clip to give a different message, Palestinian Media Watch “tried to violate and mislead,” he said.
Itamar Marcus, the organization’s founder and director, argued that Tibi’s statement that “the occupier wants us to call them terrorists” proved that he was not actually limiting his comments to civilians when he talked about martyrs. He also argued that Tibi was at fault regardless of the meaning of the speech: Palestinian Martyrs Day commemorates terrorists as well as civilians killed by Israel, Marcus said, and by attending the event, Tibi gave his “stamp of approval” to the “glorification of terrorism and suicide terrorists.”
The controversy about Tibi’s comments comes as the activities of other Arab lawmakers are also under a spotlight. It emerged in mid-January that during a raid in the West Bank, the Israeli army found a photograph of Haneen Zoabi, from the Balad party, meeting with senior Hamas officials, including Aziz Duwaik, who is the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority’s parliament. Duwaik was arrested by Israeli authorities on January 19, and was placed by a military court in administrative detention for six months, “due to the danger posed by the detainee’s active involvement in the Hamas terror organization.” Photographs of Ibrahim Sarsour and Masud Ganaim, from Tibi’s party, also meeting with Duwaik were found online.
The photographs, like Tibi’s martyr comments, sparked angry reactions in the Knesset. Alex Miller, of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, spoke of the “absurdity” that Arab factions in the Knesset “take advantage of the democratic platform to join Israel’s worst enemies and promote armed combat against the State.”