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MK Haneen Zoubi: I Joined The Flotilla To Show lsrael Is Not A Democracy

12 July 2010

First she faced bullets on the Mavi Marmara. Then it was death threats and chants of "terrorist" and "traitor" in the Knesset. The campaign to have her immunity and citizenship taken, even public calls for her to be executed.

Standing a shade over five feet tall, well dressed and polite, at a glance it’s hard to understand why Knesset Member (MK) Haneen Zoubi, the first female Palestinian to hold a seat in the parliament, has attracted such loathing.

"When I talk about equality, the response in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) is always ’You want to throw us in the sea.’ I don’t. I want to live beside you, that’s why you are racist and I am not," she tells us.

Zoubi has represented the Palestinian-Arab Balad National Democrat party since 2009. She has become well versed in the double standards and biases of the Israeli government.

"Israel has never been a democracy," she continues, "because it says No to equality and No to recognition of minorities. It defines itself as a Jewish, zionist state which means it is not ideologically neutral. A Jewish state means it is a Jewish right to confiscate Palestinian land, it means promoting zionist values through every sphere of society, in education and employment laws."

Zoubi reports that during her time as an MK almost 80 per cent of new laws have been directed against Arabs in Israel, who at 1.4 million people make up 18 per cent of the population.

"There is now a marriage law that says if I marry a Palestinian from, say, Ramallah, I will lose my Israeli citizenship," she says. "I can marry an American, a Belgian, an Algerian, but not a Palestinian. But any foreign Jewish person from the diaspora can have citizenship in 48 hours."

"There was a ruling this year that human rights groups cannot send information abroad without permission from the state. There is a new law that doesn’t allow the expression Nakba (the 1948 "catastrophe" when millions of Palestinians were forced into refugee camps) in Arab schools. It has been deleted from the curriculum and any institution that commemorates the Nakba will lose its budget. There are historians and researchers in universities that are forbidden from practising their work."

And with far-right figures such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in government hostility towards Palestinian-Arabs has intensified.

"He has 15 seats in the Knesset and he has nothing to say except that he hates Arabs," Zoubi says.

Her characterisation of Lieberman is not without substance. The controversial foreign minister, one of the main advocates of Israel’s bloody Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, famously went on record in 2003 saying Palestinian prisoners should be "drowned in the Dead Sea, as that is the lowest point on earth."

Zoubi has been criticised by Arabs for her membership of the Knesset, which some see as giving the government legitimacy. She feels her participation is symbolic but necessary.

"I was elected to speak for those who voted for me, not to reinforce the zionist consensus. We are against occupation, the siege on Gaza and oppressing Palestinians. I don’t represent the Knesset, I represent my people inside the Knesset, which is more difficult than to boycott it."

"I want to demand our national dignity and pride and because of this we must be in the Knesset, but I don’t give up my identity."

Another motivation for Zoubi is the need to "embarrass" the government, which is what led to her joining the freedom flotilla attacked by Israel on May 31.

"The Palestinians on the boat were the most pessimistic," she recalls, "but we never thought there would be violence on this scale.

Passengers on the Mavi Marmara before the attack.

"I can tell you there was no planning for violence on that boat. The army say they were protecting themselves, but the people who died were shot in the head and neck, which is not self-defence. It is a trap to say the activists did not defend themselves. It is like when Palestinians resist occupation and they call it terrorism."

Zoubi supports an international investigation into the attack and says she will not co-operate with the government’s internal inquiry.

"They announced the results before the inquiry. Netanyahu said the committee will show the world we acted responsibly. It has no ability to investigate the soldiers or passengers. How will they investigate without the people who were there?"

Following her release from Ashdod prison Zoubi was attacked again - this time in the Knesset. Taunted with chants of ’terrorist’ and ’traitor’ she had to be given an armed escort to ensure her safety.

Danny Danon, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called for her to be "tried for treason." A 7-1 committee vote recommended stripping her parliamentary privileges. Eliyahu Yishai, Israeli deputy prime minister and interior minister, called for her citizenship to be revoked, claiming she "headed a group of terrorists." A public campaign for her execution has been gathering momentum.



I ask Zoubi if she still has a future in such a hostile parliament.

"I didn’t enter the Knesset to do an easy job," she replies. "I wouldn’t be there if Israel was a real democratic state. We are there because it’s a hard political struggle. They cannot pull my citizenship or immunity, but they may disqualify my party from the next election. Personal threats are not important, but I am worried the high court may decide to stop us running in the next election."

Three previous attempts to disqualify Balad, in 2003, 2006 and 2009, were rejected by the high court.

When it comes to the next free Gaza flotilla, due to sail after Ramadan, Zoubi is more optimistic.

"It will send a real message to Israel that even if you kill us we are not afraid," she says. "The aim was and remains to end the blockade and I think we succeeded because the siege will not drop to the margins again."

Zoubi is wary that Hamas is using the flotillas for PR purposes, but she feels this is a secondary concern behind the collective suffering of the Gazan population, and a price that must be paid.

She is disappointed in an international community that has "allowed Israel to behave like a spoiled child, believing she can do whatever she wants. No sanctions, no isolation. Israel could not manage a 43-year occupation and four-year siege without silence from the world. These policies will not change by continuing with a ’business as usual’ approach."

Zoubi holds the Palestinian Authority (PA) accountable too.

"It’s time for Palestinians to say enough to the PA, enough to their Oslo agreement which deepened the occupation, expanded settlements and isolated Gaza. The PA has the responsibility for the daily services of occupation while Israel continues to expand, taking our land, water and resources."

"If we are weak now, at least let us show steadfastness. If we cannot proceed we should at least stand our ground, not to give up. If we cannot implement our vision at least let us have a vision. We cannot feel that we are less than someone else. Freedom is the most precious value and we cannot give it up."

However she remains concerned that Israel has no motivation to deliver a just peace.

"Until the end of second intifada there was a feeling that Israel needed peace for stability. For normal life. Now within the Knesset ministers feel there is no need for peace because there is no resistance. The wall, the siege of Gaza and negotiation - these three tools give Israel what peace was supposed to provide."

Zoubi also believes that prospects for a two-state solution died long ago thanks to the continual expansion of settlements, which today house 500,000 Israelis on Palestinian land.

"I want a democratic, binational state," she explains. "I don’t like to live with pure ethnicity, I don’t want Palestinian children to grow up hating Israelis and vice versa.

"Whether we like it or not this is the way we are going, so we must work towards it. I want us to live side by side in equality."

Learn more about the Free Gaza movement http://www.freegaza.ps/en/