- 12 Mar 19
The stark reality of Israeli intransigence has been brought back into focus in Ireland by the call for a boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest. But what is the reality for Palestinians on the ground in Israel – and in the Occupied Territories? As a Palestinian MP in the Knesset, Haneen Zoabi has been vilified and verbally abused, called a traitor, labelled a terrorist, and accused of treason – and all of this by her fellow parliamentarians. No wonder she has a lot to say…
Haneen Zoabi was the first woman elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on a Palestinian party list. That was in 2009, and she was re-elected in 2013 and 2015. Over her period in representative politics, Zoabi has become the most important public face, for those politically active Palestinians that the Israeli right loves to hate.
In truth it is not just the right: the widespread hostility in Israel to Zoabi goes even further. She first earned notoriety in 2010 when, as a member of the Israeli Knesset, she took part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla of boats that set sail from Turkey in an attempt to break the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza. It ended brutally, when Israeli naval commandos boarded the Mavi Marama ship at night, killing nine of its crew and passengers.
Haneen Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset for her participation. She was suspended for a second time earlier this year, after calling Israeli soldiers’ “murderers” in a Knesset committee meeting.
In parliament, she has been called a traitor and a terrorist. On the streets of Tel Aviv, and on social media, she has been called far worse, enduring almost a decade of threats, insults and abuse from the Zionist far right.
To describe her as The Most Hated Woman in Israel is hardly an exaggeration. But she refuses to be cowed. Perhaps that’s why she attracts such opprobrium and hostility.
“I ignore it,” she shrugs. “When I see what they are doing in Gaza, when you kill every day and bomb… shouting at me on the street in the supermarket, telling everyone ‘don’t serve her’ hardly matters. But there are certain areas I don’t enter alone, to tell you the truth.”
THE BOYCOTT IS CRUCIAL
We met at the offices of her political party ‘Balad, in Nazareth, in northern Israel. Located in a busy industrial estate on the outskirts of the city, the offices are on the third floor, over what appears to be a DIY curtain and window-blind shop. I arrive a few minutes early. Offered ‘Turkish’ coffee, I am politely asked to sit and wait. Hanin is on her way.
Haneen Zoabi arrives about fifteen minutes later. Smaller than I expected, petite even, she nevertheless commands the room. She has real presence. Wearing hugely oversized, stylish sun glasses, and with her trademark sweep of full thick black hair parted to one side, she cuts a striking figure, glamorous even. Polite and graceful, almost demure, she leads me into a conference room.
“So, first question,” I say, immediately regretting what sounds like a tedious numbering of my queries: “Do you prefer to identify as an Arab Israeli; a Palestinian citizen of Israel; an Israeli Palestinian; or something else entirely?” It is a subject that generates considerable controversy in Israel.
“Ah don’t ask it, we hate this question,” she yells, half mockingly, “because we are Palestinians. You define yourself as an Irish, not as an English. We are Palestinian. Of course, we are Palestinian.”
It is an important symbolic point. In the mainstream media in Israel, and even the left-wing newspaper, Haaretz, Palestinian citizens of Israel – who make up 22% of the population and are entitled to vote in elections to the Knesset – are almost always called ‘Israeli Arabs’, as distinct from the currently stateless Palestinians living in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza. It is a distinction that Haneen energetically refutes.
“It was part of the hidden violence of Israel to redefine our personality, our identity, our history,” she states. “My identity is a strategic threat to Israel. They consider us traitors as soon as we define ourselves as Palestinians.”
I feel almost sheepish, asking why she thinks the Israeli left-wing insist on using the phrase ‘Israeli-Arab’ and not ‘Palestinian’.
“Palestinians don’t differentiate between right and left,” she shrugs. “We differentiate between Zionists and Anti-Zionists. If you don’t consider what happened in 1948 as ethnic cleansing, expelling 85% of the Palestinians, if you don’t define Zionist as a colonial project, then you are not left-wing.”
I briefly outline the proposed BDS (Boycott Divestment & Sanctions) legislation that is currently moving through the Irish parliament, a proposal designed to specifically target Israeli settlements. Does she support BDS in relation to all of Israel?
Her answer in an emphatic, “Of course.”
And should that boycott, I ask, extend to universities, cultural institutes, academics, the Eurovision Song Contest? She raises her voice.
“Especially cultural academics,” she says. “The boycott is crucial. The academics, the professors, the Israelis – as long as they are silent, you are bombing the children of Gaza.”
ON VIOLENCE TOWARDS WOMEN
She appears to have a particular distaste for those Israeli cultural elites who are not vocal in their criticism of the occupation, mocking some imagined caricature of them.
“No, I’m not a criminal, I teach,” she mimics, before quickly berating the character she has momentarily invented. “Your silence is the strongest support of the army… with your beautifying the face of Israel: your good clothes, your classical music, your western profile – you are doing a service to this very ugly army.”
Does the boycott extend to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian academics, Palestinian artists? To herself? “Yes, it includes me, if I go as a representative of the Knesset.”
I wonder is the abuse she gets related to the fact that she is a woman: a Palestinian woman.
She tilts her shoulders back.
“Yes, for sure,” she says. “It’s part of the sexist remarks I get.”
She adopts the exaggerated voice of those her mock her, waving her hands dismissively.
“‘Go to Hamas and find out what they will do with a 40 year-old single woman’ – I was 40 back then,” she laughs. “‘No man will come close to you. No man will allow himself to touch you’… That was in the Knesset, in the chamber with a microphone. It’s on record.”
Does she identify at all with Tamar Zanberg (leader of the small left-wing Meretz party) – or any other female Knesset member? Zoabi guffaws at the suggestion.
“No, not at all, the definition of feminism in Israel is to be equal to men in oppressing the Palestinians. It is to be equal to have the right to bomb the Palestinians.”
She becomes increasingly passionate, almost angry.
“The Zionist feminist movement are not taking about freeing the Palestinians from chauvinism of the military. They are talking about to expand the chauvinist military to recruit the women. It’s absurd. Zionist feminism is anti-feminism.”
Globally, the #MeToo movement has been one of the most significant social and political stories of 2018. Has it had any impact on politics or on social discourse in Palestinian society?
“No,” she says, “it has bypassed Palestinian society. I think it needs a lot of courage (to speak out). It didn’t have an impact.”
Haneen Zoabi is acknowledged as a tireless advocate for women’s rights, but she appears almost deflated by her answer. She talks quietly. “With regard to killing women [a reference to so-called ‘Honour Killings’] and violence towards women,” she says, “we are not a passive community. We are not a silent community. I’m very critical of my society.”
THEY DON’T SEE US AS HUMAN
I move on.
Last year in Dallas, Haneen Zoabi gave a speech to the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, an American pro-Palestinian organisation. It was widely reported in the mainstream Israeli media that her speech included a statement that the Jewish People are not a nationality and therefore have no right to self-determination. The speech generated a wave of hostility across Israel media.
She seems genuinely perplexed I should be questioning her on this.
“The Muslims are not a nation. Also the Christians are not.”
“Anti-Semitism is to treat the Jews in a different way, in a racist way,” she asserts. “But from the other side, also to give privileges to the Jews is a kind of treating the Jews in a different way to others.
“So, to be clear, the Muslims are not a nation and they don’t deserve self-determination. Christians all over the world are not a nation. Also the Jews: it’s a religion. For me, self-determination is a political definition.”
While Zoabi's flat-out rejection of the suggestion that Jews have a right to define themselves collectively as a people, as a nation, is to be expected, she does extend an olive branch.
“Jews who came to my homeland,” she says, “I can recognize them as Israelis, who have developed a special culture here, a special language, Hebrew culture.”
She leans forward.
“This is important,” she declares. “They deserve self-determination, group rights, cultural rights, national rights, religious rights equal to my Palestinian collective rights. The Israelis ignore this side of my talk, of what I said.”
Haneen Zoabi is a fluent Hebrew speaker. Yet her acknowledgement, and seemingly genuine appreciation of the depths and richness of the roots of Israeli culture, is not as she says, something one reads often in Israeli media.
“The Israelis, they always delete this part of my speech: Jews who are here, have a special Israeli identity. It’s an Israeli identity, so yes, I recognize them their self-determination here.”
As for the idea of so-called ‘repatriation’ of Jews, on this she is adamant.
“No other Jews have special right to come here,” she says. “The right to come back is reserved for Palestinian refugees who were expelled.”
She becomes increasingly passionate and voluble, talking to Israelis in the second person, and gesticulating as if her anger, her accusations, are directed at me. It’s a little discomfiting, if oddly mesmerising.
“Why you come to me?” she asks Israelis. “You hate my Arabic language, if don’t want to hear my Arabic language……you” – she loses her thread briefly “...you feel superior. You feel superior to the Arab culture and the Arab history, why you came as a European? Go back to Europe, if you think the Europeans are superior to Arab culture.”
Her voice is now reaching the crescendo of a public rally “…go back, go back – don’t feel superior.”
I interrupt to point out that not all Israelis came from Europe: up to half of the country are either first or second-generation Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni or are from other Arab or Muslim countries.
Zoabi agrees. “Yeah, half of them are from the Arab world, but the Likud [Party of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu] hasn’t changed the elite from an Ashkenazi, European, western elite.”
Some people might see this as a contradiction, and argue that just as she has the right to identify as Palestinian, Jewish people have a right to identify as a nationality?
“Some,” she says. “Those who are here – I accept that. But not all the Jews. I recognize them. Seven million.” She says this defiantly. “What else do they want… I must delete myself as a Palestinian, I must just delete myself as a human, my identity?”
She moves closer, she draws me in, she speaks very calmly and very softly.
“But what I don’t recognize…” She pauses… “Paul?” she asks, and I nod… “What I don’t recognize is their privileges. They demand privileges. This is what they demand: they don’t demand equality, they don’t see us as human, they don’t believe we are human, we deserve nothing in their eyes. If you don’t accept this, you are a terrorist if you’re Palestinian – or an anti-Semite if you are European.”
THESE ARE WAR CRIMES
Silence. A strange expectation fills the big room. It’s seems appropriate to completely shift the conservation, an opportunity to try to get her to talk about the person behind the politician.
I ask her, who has most influenced her in becoming the person, the woman, she is now? She seems reluctant to share her thoughts,
“I didn’t plan, in any part of my life, to get into Knesset… It was not part of my ambition. I wasn’t raised to be a Palestinian. My parents didn’t raise me to be proud of my Palestinian identity, not at all.
“They raised me to be a self-confident woman, not to let anyone hurt me as a woman, to have self-pride, and self-confidence, that’s it… But from this to be active as a Palestinian the distance, is so, so short. For me, it’s to be passive or not – to influence my reality or not.”
At first, it wasn’t injustices between Palestinians and Israelis she thought about. “I started to compare between women and men in my society. Between my mother”– she pauses, before adding hesitantly – “and my father.
“Why do women are cooking all the time, and men are sitting? Why? This is a question I was asking, since three years old: why my father is driving a car and not my mother? Why?”
At the age of 12, on TV she watched the story of the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camps, which occurred in Beirut, in 1982.
“Who is this in Sabra and Shatila?” she suddenly says, as if once again, acting out a character, in a dramatization of past events. “I was 12 years old, in sixth grade.”
She resumes the dramatic vocal intonation. “Who are they? And my mother she says ‘these are the Palestinians’, and I said ‘who are Palestinians?’ Nobody told me I was a Palestinian in primary school. My mother belonged to a generation in the 1960s and 1970s in which defining ourselves as Palestinian was not so taken for granted as now.”
Haneen Zoabi comes from a prominent, relatively privileged Muslim Palestinian family. She is a relative of Seif el-Din el-Zoubi, a former mayor of Nazareth, and member of the Knesset in the 1950s; and also of Abd el-Aziz el-Zoubi, a Deputy Health Minister and the first Arab member of an Israeli government.
Asked as to her personal preference for a ‘two-state’ or ‘single-state’ solution, Zoabi says she has “no preference.” What is important, she says, is that whatever emerges should be “democratic, normal with full collective rights.”
And in the event of two democratic states sitting side by side, could she envisage some Israeli settlers being allowed to stay in their homes? “No, no, no, no, no,” she says, waving her hand repeatedly. “These are war crimes. Settlements are war crimes.”
In 1972, one in 300 Israelis were settlers; today that number has risen to one in thirteen. In all, there are some 700,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the event of a future peace deal, the wider consensus seems to be that some of the larger settlement blocks – some just a few hundred metres east of the Green Line – will be incorporated into Israel.
In the event of a comprehensive peace agreement, would she accept some settlers being permitted to stay in their homes but inside a Palestinian State?
“No,” she says. “Even after that [peace agreement,] they can have individual immigration, and the laws of the Palestinian accepts them as immigrants”.
WHERE THERE’S LIFE…
I can’t resist asking for her personal thoughts of Benjamin Netanyahu. How does she read his motivations?
She sighs, takes a deep inbreath – as if to instinctively distance herself. She refers him in the third person/abstract.
“I don’t underestimate this person,” she says. “He is not just an opportunist, he has a well-defined strategy, ideology and a well-defined path to redefine Israel.
“Before Netanyahu,” she adds “Israel was a racist state. Now Israel, under his leadership, has become a semi-fascist state. Now we are talking about another Israel. Israel has now a different elite: (it has gone) from a Zionist liberal elite to extremist rightwing elite. Now the [retention of the] settlements and the West Bank are part of the consensus.
“Before 2004, before Netanyahu, the occupation was a burden. There still is an occupation, but the occupation stopped being a burden. It’s so easy now. Because of the [Gaza] siege, the [Israeli separation] wall, the Palestinians disappeared. The occupation disappeared. Now, a new generation of Israelis don’t know there is an occupation.”
Haneen Zoabi’s assertion about an invisible occupation is increasingly true in Israel. It’s subtle and multifaceted and almost unfathomable. From the peculiarities of road signage to weather forecasting maps, the occupation is effectively being erased in the popular consciousness. A recent study found that 60% of 18 to 29-year-old Israelis believed that Israel had already annexed the entire West Bank.
“In the election campaign of 2009, 2013, 2015, you didn’t see any mention in the campaign what to do with the West Bank,” she says. “It was just the problems of the middle class, housing: the Palestinians disappeared. Israel has managed psychologically to delete us from the minds of Israelis, and this is because the occupation has become easy, without a price – and when you don’t pay any price for your oppression, you will not consider your oppression.”
Is she disappointed by Europe’s failure to exert meaningful pressure on Israel to end the occupation?
“Not disappointed, it’s not disappointment,” she says and there is a very long pause. “I don’t take it so seriously the western values of justice and democracy. They are hypocrites – not the people, the grassroots. I’m talking about the diplomats, even some of the journalists.
“Maybe before liberating the Palestinians we should liberate the Europeans first from the pressure of the Zionist lobby,” she says. “Israel is now dangerous to the Europeans. Europe is captured and oppressed by the Zionist lobby.”
But she is not entirely without hope.
“The young people,” she says, meaning young Europeans, “are more and more liberated from this sin of the Holocaust, from the Nazis, more detached from Hitler. They are more rational.”
What of the Arab world I ask? Here, she expects even less.
“The Palestinian Authority has become a tool of the occupation,” she reflects. “Arab regimes and dictatorships who kill their people, oppress their people, put them in jail in Egypt and Syria... Sisi [President of Egypt], Bin Salman [The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia] and Bashar Assad [in Syria] are criminals, but the hypocrisy of the Europeans to deal with Sisi, Bin Salman. This is not disappointing, this is disgusting. Disgusting.”
IT’S ALL OVER NOW
And what of the future? Haneen Zoabi’s voice becomes more subdued, even a little deflated. Perhaps after almost an hour of questions and answers that’s inevitable.
“As Palestinians,” she says, “when we look at Gaza, we feel so shameful, shameful: they have suffered eleven years of a siege, with destruction of a society, and you see their willingness to fight, but…”
Her voice crackles with emotion, her eyes almost tearful.
“We must not ask people to be heroes. Humans are humans, they are not supposed to be heroes.”
She abruptly changes tone, speaking almost defiantly, as if she is back at a rally.
“We should reunify ourselves as a people. We should get rid of the Palestinian Authority and redefine our leadership.” Now, she sounds wistful again. “Remember the power of Israel has it limits. The power of the military has its limits, and the limits of Israel is the will of the people who want their liberty, nothing more.”
Finally, has she a message for the Irish people – apart, of course, from the importance of boycotting Eurovision?
Her eyes brighten, her face lightens again, and she laughs quietly.
“First of all, I always feel empowered when I meet Irish people”, she says and smiles in a disarming way. “I don’t know why. Maybe this is a romantic idea of the Irish people, but I think it’s not just romantic, it’s what I saw in Ireland, in Dublin and Belfast, when I entered the bars with flags and Palestinian flags: when I speak to people, they understand me; they understand our emotions; they understand our anger.”
I thank her. We shake hands. She stands up. Packing away my notes, I casually ask will she be running for the Knesset again.
“No,” she says.
I ask her why?
“I have had enough,” she says. “Enough of the Knesset.”
I thank her again. “Thank you, Paul,” she says softly.
I ask for a photo. “A Selfie?” She laughs.
Hanin Zoabi has since made official the announcement that she is not running in the Knesset again.
Meanwhile, on March 6, the Knesset Central Elections Committee disqualified the Balad party from running any candidates in the upcoming elections. The decision was passed by 17 votes in favour and 10 against, on the alleged basis that the party is “seeking to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, and supports the violent Palestinian resistance and Hezbollah, and most of its members are supporters and backers of terror.”
The Supreme Court will have the final say on the decision.
• Israel goes to the polls on April 9, 2019. The Eurovision Song Contest takes place in Tel Aviv from Tuesday, May 14 to Saturday, May 18, 2019.