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.”
Zoabi denies having encouraged the violence, and stresses that “it was the Israeli army that killed nine people” not in self-defense, but in order to discourage future efforts to break the blockade.
Ever since the Marmara affair, Zoabi has faced an unremitting barrage of hostility from some Knesset colleagues. The Russian-born Anastassia Michaeli, of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, marched threateningly toward her on the Knesset podium and was reprimanded for attempting to remove her. A Knesset committee voted 7–1 to revoke Zoabi’s parliamentary immunity — a recommendation overruled by Knesset Speaker Reuben Rivlin. Even the political center treats her as if she were a pariah. In July, 2010, the full Knesset voted 34–16 to strip Zoabi of three other parliamentary privileges: her diplomatic passport, her right to financial support for legal counsel and the right to visit countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations.
There is something earnest about Zoabi. She seems to believe in her cause, and appears to carry few scars. Neatly attired that day in jeans and a black blouse that matched her hair and eyes, the bespectacled legislator looked a little younger than her 43 years. She was enthusiastic as she spoke of her plans for the next Knesset, waving her arms to emphasize facts.
In what could come as a surprise to those who think she spends the bulk of her time provoking Israeli Jews about the occupation and Nakba, the 1948 Palestinian catastrophe of displacement, Zoabi is most energized by her efforts to boost the status of Arab women.
“I will focus in the new Knesset on the issue of working women, because if there is any one element from which Palestinian society can benefit the most, it is that,” she said. “It can be a motor for the development of Palestinian society.”
Currently, the participation rate of Arab women in the nation’s workforce is about 20%. Zoabi would like to see that doubled, although she believes this will be difficult because of what she says is reluctance of the government to allocate lands to Arab towns and villages for industrial areas that would enable women to work close to home.
“In the last Knesset, I managed to convince the Ministry of Industry and Trade to give 3,000 loans totaling 90 million shekels for 3,000 Palestinian women to develop small businesses for themselves,” Zoabi boasted. “I pushed it and wrote a plan for it after consulting specialists.”
Zoabi has also prioritized her effort to combat violence against women in Arab society. “I initiated tens of debates inside the Committee on the Status of Women and the Interior Committee, demanding more protection from police, more investigations, questioning the work of police and demanding that more Arabs work as investigators, because if a Jewish investigator deals with an Arab woman, there is a cultural and linguistic gap.’’
She does not worry about being too liberal for her society on women’s issues. In the election campaign this past January, she confronted the patriarchal society of Rahat in the Negev, criticizing polygamy there before a crowd that included men who have multiple wives. “No society can live a normal life with the oppression of women and with polygamy,” she said, according to people who were present. To the women, she added: “Go and study, go work. Get out of the house. Build yourselves. Don’t get married at a young age. Have independent thinking and an independent personality.”
Zoabi, who comes from a Muslim family, is a single woman who lives with her parents, something she says is a matter of preference, not a concession to conservative norms.
For all her feminist ardor, Zoabi does not wage a joint struggle with Israeli Jewish feminists. She says that cultural differences preclude that. In cases of violence against Arab women, she said, offering an example, “you can’t send a Jewish woman to help, because she doesn’t speak the language or understand the social codes.”
Still, Zoabi’s legislative efforts earned the respect of Daniel Ben-Simon, who served as a Knesset member for the Labor Party, on the committee to advance the status of women. “She was always prepared and knew what she was talking about,” he said. “She would ask very specific questions…. She spoke only about her sector, as a one-issue woman. She expressed the cry of the Arab woman, man and student. She raised issues. I doubt if she arrived at solutions, but many Arab members of the Knesset would say raising the issues is all they can do.”
Likud Knesset Member Danny Danon has little patience for this. He believes that Zoabi should be barred from serving. Danon sees Zoabi as the successor to Azmi Bishara, who founded the Balad party and fled Israel after being accused of working on behalf of the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, with which Israel fought a war in 2006. “She crossed the lines with her actions in supporting terror and her activities on the Marmara,” Danon said, “and she continues the path of Azmi Bishara against the Jewish state and in supporting terror groups.”
In Nazareth, Zoabi’s hometown, the view looks different. “As a woman, she is the first to talk in such a modern and democratic way,” said grocer Hany Haddad, 67. “She is trying to raise up our female society. Socially I consider her a courageous woman. Women in the Middle East are oppressed, and we have to encourage every woman to talk. She is the pioneer here.”
Contact Ben Lynfield at firstname.lastname@example.org