The paradox of being an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset

Al Jazeera speaks with Jamal Zahalka, one of the suspended Arab members of Israeli Knesset and head of Balad party.

Member of the Israeli Knesset, Jamal Zahalka
'The daily life of our community depends on their relationship with the state, and we cannot ignore that,' says Zahalka [Ylenia Gostoli/ for Al Jazeera]

Last week, three members of the Israeli Knesset, Jamal Zahalka, Hanin Zoabi and Basel Ghattas, were suspended for attending a meeting with the families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces while allegedly carrying out attacks and whose bodies were held by Israel.

The meeting was organised by a Palestinian committee aiming at retrieving the bodies and returning them to the families for burial.

All three are members of Balad, one of four political parties that form the Joint-List coalition, made up mainly – but not exclusively –  of Palestinian citizens of Israel. While Zoabi and Ghattas were suspended for four months, Balad’s leader Zahalka was suspended for two.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later announced that he would push forward a draft bill that allows for the suspension of Knesset members if voted for by 90 out of the parliament’s 120 members, who would also decide how long the ban should be for. It would be the first bill allowing the Knesset to unseat representatives elected by the public.

Al Jazeera speaks to Jamal Zahalka, leader of the Balad party.

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Al Jazeera: Could you explain what led to your suspension from the Knesset?

Jamal Zahalka: We were invited by families whose sons were killed in confrontations with the occupation forces. Ten families from Jerusalem have been waiting for their sons’ bodies to be returned for more than four months.

It’s a paradox, being in the Knesset and challenging its logic. We do challenge the nature of the state. We have an alternative for that, which is a state for all its citizens.

When Israel made a previous agreement [with the Palestinian Authority] to return the bodies, East Jerusalem was not included on the basis that it is part of Israel. 

At the same time, as Arab members of the Knesset, we cannot speak on behalf of East Jerusalem [residents] because we don’t recognise Israel’s annexation. So, 300,000 Palestinians in the West Bank don’t have any sort of representation.

Those families made contact with the police through a lawyer. But they were told that this is not a security problem, it’s a political problem. That’s why they asked us to intervene.

Israel puts conditions over the return of the bodies, such as asking the families to bury them outside Jerusalem, or limiting the number of people allowed to attend the funeral and burying the body immediately, which doesn’t allow enough time for a post mortem.

Some of the families insist on an autopsy because they say their son was killed in cold blood, not in self-defence. A post mortem would also allow for establishing how long the person had been bleeding before he died, which means he didn’t get medical aid.

Some families agreed to some of the conditions, and we took their response to the Ministry of Internal Security [which oversees the police].

For us, it’s a humanitarian issue. It’s important to say that, as opposed to what was initially reported by the Israeli press. We only met with the families who didn’t get the bodies back.

But the day after, Netanyahu gave a special speech to the nation saying that three MKs had met the families of Palestinian “terrorists” to express their solidarity with them.

READ MORE: Israel ‘minimising Palestinian presence’ in Jerusalem

Al Jazeera: Do you see what happened as a symptom of a fundamental change in the Israeli political climate?

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Zahalka: Yes, particularly since the elections that took place last March. This is the fourth term for Netanyahu. During his decade-long time in office, Netanyahu hardly mentioned Palestinian citizens of Israel. But from day one in the last elections, he has been warning that Arabs were “coming out in droves” to the polls.

Netanyahu realised that he can mobilise and dramatically affect public opinion in Israel with this not-so-new enemy. Netanyahu is a good reader of the Israeli public. He understood that he needs to compete with other leaders in the Israeli right camp, like [Avigdor] Lieberman and [Naftali] Bennett.

It’s a mixture of racism and opportunism. Before it [the enemy] was Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Now Palestinian citizens of Israel are the ultimate enemy. Mobilising the people around an enemy has been the strategy of the right all over the world and throughout history. That enemy is usually an outsider. Here, it’s the enemy from within.

In the past, the job of attacking [the Balad party] was done by marginal members of the Likud party and the far-right in Israel. Now, it’s led by the prime minister himself, and that’s why it’s so dangerous.

It has become a strategy not just against Zoabi, or Balad. He [Netanyahu] is inciting against all our community. He banned the Islamic movement [last November]. He has been passing new laws that narrow our political rights.

Al Jazeera: Do you fear the bill that would allow the Knesset to vote on the suspension of its members might put you in an even more vulnerable position?

Zahalka: Of course it’s called the “Balad law”, or “chilling law”, and it’s being prepared very rapidly. [It aims] to “freeze”, or lower the ceiling of your political activity [as a parliament member].

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Al Jazeera: The Zionist left opposes this particular bill, but you’ve argued in the past that [Israel’s zionist left] is worse than the right. Do you think it’s possible or desirable to see them as partners to contain the rise of the right camp?


Zahalka: The Zionist left came and occupied our villages singing, “We brought you peace”. Not shouting, “Death to Arabs”, like the right. But the Zionist left was the main disaster for [Palestinians]. Not because the right is better, simply because they were in power till 1977.

Our strategy has always been to make coalitions, practical coalitions, on issues that we do agree on with other parties. We do this in the Knesset, on social, economic and some human rights issues.

Al Jazeera: It has been argued that your very presence in the Knesset proves Israel’s democratic character, and therefore serves to legitimise it as a “Jewish and democratic” state. If you don’t believe Israel can change from within, when is it time to take the struggle elsewhere?

Zahalka: On the one hand, it’s true that Israel uses the fact that there are Arab members in the Knesset to show it’s a democracy. But on the other hand, what we are doing in the Knesset weighs

It’s a paradox, being in the Knesset and challenging its logic. We do challenge the nature of the state. We have an alternative for that, which is a state for all its citizens.

As Palestinian citizens of Israel, we are part of the Palestinian people. But after 1948, we remained in this country. The daily life of our community depends on their relationship with the state, and we cannot ignore that. When it comes to a point that we cannot do, then we will leave.

Al Jazeera: Are we heading in that direction?

Zahalka: The situation is worsening. But with the Joint List, a coalition of the Arab parties, we made unity in the era of disunity.

What we are trying to do now is to address parliaments in Europe, the U.S., the IPU [International Parliaments Union]. We want to point out that there is a minority at risk because of Israeli policies. And because it’s not the work of the extreme-right politicians alone. These are the words of Mr Netanyahu turning into actions.

Source: Al Jazeera