Q&A: Hanin Zoabi – Israel’s ‘bad Arab’

Israel has to pay the price for its policies, says Hanin Zoabi.

Israeli Arab candidate Hanin Zoaby campaigns in Sakhnin, north of Israeli
Hanin Zoabi says Arab political parties in Israel have achieved this unity by creating the United Arab Part as an electoral coalition [EPA]

Haifa – Hanin Zoabi, a prominent Palestinian lawmaker in Israel’s Knesset, says Arab political parties in Israel have achieved a “historic unity” by creating the United Arab Party, an electoral coalition including the three largest Palestinian political parties that participate in parliament.

Last December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and called for an early elections in March. “I will not tolerate any opposition in my government,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying.

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.

Enjoying the support of Netanyahu, another new proposed law, the “Hanin Zoabi bill”, could permit the expulsion of Knesset members “who in a time of war or military action against an enemy state or terror organisation offers public support for military struggle against the State of Israel” and stipulates that their term will be terminated as soon as a majority of lawmakers votes in favour of expulsion.

Zoabi, a senior member of the Balad political party, has long sparked outrage among Israeli political leaders, particularly for her vocal denouncements of discriminatory legislation and the ruling parties in Israel. She spoke to Al Jazeera.

Hanin Zoabi, senior member of the Balad political party, Israel

Al Jazeera: What are the most important issues facing Palestinian voters ahead of Israel’s upcoming Knesset elections?

Hanin Zoabi: The most crucial thing is to fight political separation and the lack of confidence in democratic tools. Palestinians [in Israel] have less confidence in the Israeli Knesset. This is not just the outcome of [Israeli policies] but also a product of the centrists’ silence and the so-called left-wing’s defeat.There is no real left-wing in Israel today.

We haven’t effectively used all of the democratic tools at our disposal. We haven’t participated in enough popular struggles to raise our voices against Israeli policies and racism. [Palestinian] discontent is the outcome of the inefficiency of using only traditional parliamentary tools throughout the last 20 years. Popular struggle can complement democratic methods. We have to exhaust all of the tools that we can use to further [the Palestinian case].

Al Jazeera: Analysts have described the upcoming elections as a battle between hardline right-wing Zionist parties, such as Likud and Jewish Home Party, and centrist parties, like former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. What does this mean for Palestinians in Israel?

Zoabi: The Israeli centrists’ main criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu is that his strategy is only to maintain the status quo. They say that Netanyahu does not want to solve the Palestinian problem and sign a lasting agreement. I would say that Livni and [Isaac] Herzog have the ability to better maintain the status quo than Netanyahu – and this is dangerous. Netanyahu challenged the international community’s interests and the United States’ policies towards the peace process. He was very arrogant and pressed forward to build more settlements and expand [existing] ones.

We are facing the hardest right-wing political campaign in Israel’s history. The micro-level strategic differences are not the most important issues right now. The situation on the ground is that Israel is confiscating land and demolishing homes; Palestinians are enduring violence and poverty; and Arab Knesset members and political activists are being persecuted.

Netanyahu lacks the political savvy of Livni and others like her, who want to satisfy the international community without solving the Palestinian problem or making any dramatic policy changes.

They will not withdraw to the 1967 borders. The most they can offer to any Palestinian leadership is far less than what Palestinians could ever accept.

Livni and Herzog don’t share Netanyahu’s violent and racist rhetoric; but they will continue policies to Judaise the Negev and Galilee regions, and they will continue trying to institutionalise Jerusalem as the ‘united and undivided capital’ of Israel.

On all of these issues I see no difference. In fact, they are more dangerous because they use a more moderate political discourse when addressing the international community.

But the only way to make Israel accountable is to isolate it internationally. As Palestinians we don’t believe that Israel will change from within. It will take the world isolating Israel and freezing all relations on both economic and political levels. Israel will never change as long as it doesn’t have to pay the price for its policies.

Al Jazeera: What were the hardest barriers to overcome in order to forge a united Palestinian electoral list? 

Zoabi: The three main political streams have come together in the United Arab Party. No one has given up their ideology or political platforms. Nationalists in Balad still believe in a state for all of its citizens. The communists still believe in two nation states [for Jews and Arabs] as a solution, which we [in Balad] disagree with. The Islamists still do not believe in gender equality.

We are facing the hardest right-wing political campaign in Israel’s history. The micro-level strategic differences are not the most important issues right now. The situation on the ground is that Israel is confiscating land and demolishing homes; Palestinians are enduring violence and poverty; and Arab Knesset members and political activists are being persecuted.

This is not the moment to argue over a state for all of its citizens or two national states. Right now we have to work to improve daily life and the situation on the ground.

The more right-wing the state becomes, the less relevant our own ideological differences become. When it comes to women’s equality and individual liberties, it has no place for [Palestinians] in the Knesset.

This has to be discussed within our own communities. This is about how we decide to define our culture, identity and social values. This has to be discussed within the Arab Higher Follow-Up Committee, within the [Arab] political parties and in different civil society groups.

The new political union will create a culture of confidence and a normal political culture. It will allow us to negotiate our political difference by talking to one another and decreasing the gaps standing between us. It is a good infrastructure to discuss our ideological disagreements in a way we have not done before.

Al Jazeera: Israeli lawmakers have continually focused on you and your political positions in recent years, but increasingly since this past summer when they began attempting to remove you from the Knesset. What is the goal of this strategy?

Zoabi: There are two reasons – one is ideological and the other is a cheap political tactic. People like [senior Likud party member] Danny Danon and [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman have nothing to offer voters. Their campaign of persecuting me is designed to score cheap political goals. It is not about me; it is about their political manoeuvring.

The other reason is more ideological in nature. There has always been an Israeli strategy to differentiate between ‘the good Arab’ and other Palestinians. This is the Palestinian who struggles for individual rights of Palestinians in Israel, but never crosses Israel’s redline. The ‘good Arab’ is half-Arab and half-Israeli; he doesn’t challenge Zionism and accepts Israel’s definition of who is a ‘terrorist’ and who is a ‘freedom fighter’. Israel doesn’t want Arabs [with Israeli citizenship] to criticise the army as a basic political starting point.

Empire – Israel & Palestine Peace

There is also the fact that I am a woman. Israel’s [mainstream] political establishment had an expectation for me as a woman. I believe it would be much different if I was a man, but I am a woman who represents a much younger generation. A new generation of Palestinians identifies with me more than an Arab political representative in his 50s or 60s.

From an ideological point of view, it is very crucial for Israel to persecute me as a deterrent for young vocal Palestinians. Many [Israeli leaders] hoped I would focus more on gender struggles and other internal social problems [within the Palestinian minority]. Yet I perceive the feminist struggle [of Palestinian women] as part of our national struggle.

Al Jazeera: Many activists call for Palestinians in Israel to boycott elections, arguing that the Knesset’s Arab lawmakers have failed to meaningfully impact the wave of discriminatory laws and police brutality. What do you say to them?

Zoabi: My only criterion for agreeing to a boycott is certainty that this strategy can empower us. When a boycott is an individual decision and not a collective decision I disagree with it. A boycott that does not present another political struggle as an alternative [to electoral participation] is not enough.

If boycotting is just the negation of participating in the Knesset, I disagree with it on a strategic level. If boycotting is accompanied by an organised campaign of civil disobedience or another clear model of struggle, then I would consider it a tool to empower Palestinians and our struggle.

Without an alternative, what are we supposed to do the day after the elections? What can we say to the people facing the right-wing Zionist parties?

Source: Al Jazeera