Jerusalem - For the second time in less than two years, Hanin Zoabi, a prominent Palestinian politician in the Israeli Knesset and senior member of the Balad political party, is facing a prolonged suspension from the Israeli parliament. 

Zoabi, along with fellow legislators Basel Ghattas and Jamal Zahalka, has been barred from attending committees or addressing the Knesset chamber. 

The legislators, all members of the Joint List, an electoral coalition popular among Palestinian citizens of Israel, have been suspended owing to a recent visit to the relatives of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces while allegedly carrying out attacks. 

"It's a high price to pay," Zoabi told Al Jazeera. "It will be harder, of course. We have begun a lot of discussions inside the parliamentary committees which we must suspend." 

But the politician said the suspension would not lighten her workload and that she would focus her efforts on political battles outside parliament.

"We must also continue our parliamentarian work. There are a lot of issues to continue to work on," she said, reeling off a long list that included boosting the number of Arab women in the workplace, improving budgets for Arab schools and working to stop land confiscations and house demolitions. 

Earlier this month, an Israeli court handed a six-month suspended sentence to Zoabi for insulting public officials in a separate case.

An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians live in communities in cities, towns and villages across the country and carry Israeli citizenship. According to the Haifa-based Adalah Legal Centre, they face more than 50 discriminatory laws that limit their access to state resources and muzzle their political expression.


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The suspensions were handed down by the Knesset's ethics committee after a campaign spearheaded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following the Balad members' meeting with families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces while allegedly carrying out attacks in early February.

This is an attack on all Palestinian citizens. It's an attempt to
re-establish the rules of the game and to re-establish the limits on our political discourse.

Hanin Zoabi, Palestinian MK

Asked about the nature of the visit, and whether it was within his remit as a member of the Knesset, Ghattas was unequivocal that Palestinians in Jerusalem rely on Arab members of Knesset to have their voices heard in Israeli politics.

"We were there to sit with the families and verify as accurately as possible the situation of each family and what are the conditions they would accept for burying their sons,” he said. "It is not questionable at all. This is a pure humanitarian, moral issue."

The campaign to return the bodies of dead Palestinians to their families has achieved a significant breakthrough. On Sunday, Israel reportedly reached an agreement to return the bodies if the families adhere to the condition that funerals be quick, small and private.

The body of 23-year-old Ahmad Abu Shaaban, who was shot dead last October while attempting a stabbing attack in central Jerusalem, was returned to his family on Sunday.

Israel is expected to return the bodies of a further nine Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces since October in the coming days and weeks.

The politicians' meetings with the families helped to achieve the political breakthrough, they say, but their suspensions from the Knesset are not expected to be overturned.

Ghattas told Al Jazeera that the suspensions should be seen within a wider context of a campaign by the current rightwing government to demonise Arab members of Knesset (MKs), as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel.

"I think it is a strategic decision that Netanyahu took. He's never used this before. He's always had other enemies or fights he used to scare the Israeli people. Once he had Hezbollah, in the last five or six years he used the Iranians. We are now the enemy on duty for Netanyahu."

Zoabi also saw the suspensions as a small part of a wider attempt to stifle dissent among Arabs in Israel. "This is an attack on all Palestinian citizens. It's an attempt to re-establish the rules of the game and to re-establish the limits on our political discourse."


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For the Balad party, a member of the Joint List coalition, the suspension of its three most senior figures is a major setback. Founded in 1995, the movement supports a binational state with equal rights for all citizens. Balad members are no strangers to hostility, incitement from Israeli politicians as well as rightwing NGOs.

"The Israeli right wing has always resented the extension of the democratic space for Arabs in Israel and they have been trying to roll it back," said Adam Keller, spokesperson for Israeli peace activist group Gush Shalom.

"In the last few months, there has been a more serious attempt to roll this back. There was the outlawing of the northern branch of the Islamic movement and now there is an attempt to attack the Arabs in the Knesset."

Following the three suspensions, the government advanced a bill that would allow any member of parliament to be suspended if three quarters (90 members) of the Knesset voted in favour of such a move. The bill has yet to be finalised but if it were eventually passed, it could present a new mechanism to suspend minority groups from the parliament.

Despite the difficulties that Balad party is facing, young political activists say they are not intimidated by the current hostile atmosphere. 

"I have experienced much [worse] hostility from Israelis during my activities with Balad," said Hala Marshood, a political activist with the Balad party. "Me, and others who are politically active, have been spat on, cursed and even beaten by Israelis during demonstrations," she told Al Jazeera. 

The Hebrew University student takes part in conferences, camps and actions with the Balad party and said she would continue to do so.

"I don't look at Balad only as a party that is active in the Knesset," said Marshood. "I think the main purpose of Balad party is that it creates a national Palestinian alternative and is a platform for securing our basic rights, or at least an attempt to do so."

Source: Al Jazeera