Jerusalem — At the Knesset in West Jerusalem, she has been threatened, denounced as a terrorist and stripped of her parliamentary privileges. Israel’s new kingmaker, Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, has cited her as the reason he would never join a coalition that depended on support from Israeli-Arab political parties.
But at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, chatting earnestly over a cup of espresso and a slice of cake, Haneen Zoabi is interrupted repeatedly by waves and smiles, and by requests by passers-by to have their picture taken with her.
“I depend on my people to support me,” she said, referring to the Palestinians who live in that part of the city and to the 1.5 million Palestinians — one-fifth of the country’s population — who are citizens of Israel. “It is the warmth, the admiration of when you are hugged in a collective sense. This gives me strength.”
For many Jewish Israelis, Zoabi, who was elected to the Knesset in 2009 on the list of the Balad party, embodies the threat within Israel itself to their very concept of their own country, at least among some of the country’s Arab citizens. This is not without some irony: Forty-three-year-old Zoabi is also a product of, and a contributor to, some of the state’s most prominent institutions. After studying philosophy and psychology at the University of Haifa, where she earned her undergraduate degree, she received her master’s degree in communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later worked as a math teacher and school inspector for the Ministry of Education.
Nevertheless, Zoabi told The Jerusalem Post shortly after her arrival in the Knesset that for her, the concept of a Jewish state was “inherently racist.” Israel, she said, must become a “state of all its citizens.”
“I will not give you legitimacy to be a Jewish state,” she told a Forward reporter. “At the same time, I want to live with you. I don’t offer you a racist definition, I offer you a very democratic vision, not based on Palestinian nationality but on universal values, which are equality, freedom, justice and democracy. I want equality with the Jewish citizens.” Zoabi said that the struggle, both inside and beyond the Green Line, must be conducted nonviolently.
Zoabi is not alone among Arab Knesset members, or even some Jewish Israelis, in holding such views. But in recent years it has been Zoabi on whom right-wing Israelis have poured out their wrath. It’s a single-minded and enduring anger that has made her perhaps the most reviled woman in Israel. Its explanation lies in one fateful unapologetic act: Zoabi’s participation in the May 2010 expedition of the Mavi Marmara. The Mavi Marmara was part of the flotilla of ships that sought to deliver humanitarian goods to Gaza, which Israel was holding under a tight siege in order, it said, to punish Hamas, the militant anti-Israel Palestinian faction that has controlled the territory since 2006.
In the ship incident, which remains hotly disputed, nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli army gunfire and seven Israeli soldiers were wounded by homemade weapons after they boarded the Mavi Marmara in international waters to interdict it. The prevalent Israeli view is that the soldiers acted in self-defense.
In the view of Uri Elitzur, former chief of staff for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Her participating in the Marmara was support for terrorism and a provocation against Israel and its right to defend itself against terrorism. When people see an Israeli participating in such a provocation, they are angered.”