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Palestinian MK Zoabi: Voting in Israeli elections is part of the struggle

The Arab League has called on Palestinian citizens of Israel to vote in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections. The unprecedented move by the multi-national Arab group, which in the past supported the Saudi Peace Initiative with Israel, comes as a voter turnout among the Palestinian citizens of Israel – roughly 20% of the Israeli population – is expected to drop yet again.

A billboard to the Israeli-Arab party, Balad, in Nazareth, January 2013 (photo: GS)

A billboard for the Israeli-Arab party, Balad, in Nazareth, January 2013. Zoabi is a familiar face, though not the party’s head. (photo: GS)

Volunteer from one of the Arab parties canvasing potential voters in Nazareth, Israel, January 2013 (photo: GS)

Volunteer from one of the Arab parties canvasing potential voters in Nazareth, Israel, January 2013. Israel’s Arab who do vote usually split their votes among three parties. (photo: GS)

A decade ago three-quarters of Arab-Israelis voted. In the last election, only half did. The majority voted for Arab parties, which are historically excluded – and their voices with it – from coalition-formed governments. Some Arabs end up voting for the Jewish parties, and a few Arabs secure seats on their lists. (Several of the Zionist parties include Arab candidates.)

But the Arab parties themselves are split, most notably into Islamist, communist and nationalist camps. Parliamentarian Hanin Zoabi (Balad) comes from the last group. On Saturday, I caught up with Zoabi as she addressed supporters in Kufar Manda, near Nazareth.

MK Hanin Zoabi addressing supporters in Kufar Manda, Israel, standing behind a Palestinian flag, January 2013 (photo: GS)

MK Hanin Zoabi addressing supporters in Kufar Manda, Israel, standing behind a Palestinian flag, January 2013. Many Jewish-Israelis question the loyalty that Palestinian citizens of Israel have to the Jewish State. (photo: GS)

Speaking to young Arab voters from a stage draped in a Palestinian flag, I could not help but think of the accusation often made by Israel’s Jewish nationalist camps that these citizens aren’t loyal to the State. For a number of reasons, including most notably her participation in the deadly Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 – Zoabi is considered to be among the leaders of the “disloyal pack.” But Israel’s Arabs are twice as likely to be unemployed as its Jews, and two-thirds of their children are deemed poor. That’s triple  the rate compared to the country’s Jewish population. So I wondered: how loyal has the State been to them?

Young Palestinian children in Kufar Manda, Israel hold sign supporting Zoabi's party, January 2013 (photo: GS)

Young Palestinian children in Kufar Manda, Israel hold sign supporting Zoabi’s party, January 2013. Compared to Jewish-Israeli children, Arab-Israeli children are three times more likely to be poor. (photo: GS)

To the dismay of some of my Israeli friends, I will admit that I have developed a certain respect for Zoabi. It’s not because I agree with everything she says – I don’t. But I admire someone who challenges the system. All too often, successful politicians are those who use their position of power to impose their will on the weak. That’s cheap and easy. Zoabi is the type of person who speaks out for the silenced in the face of those who silence her. And that, in my opinion, is commendable. And she is perhaps as unpopular among Jewish-Israelis as she is popular among Arab-Israelis (one possibly being a direct consequence of the other).

The following is my interview with MK Zoabi in Kufar Manda, shortly after she addressed her supporters.

MK Hanin Zoabi featured on a campaign post in a busy Nazareth street, January 2013 (photo: GS)

MK Hanin Zoabi featured on a campaign post in a busy Nazareth street, January 2013. Though unpopular among many Jewish-Israelis, Zoabi has become an equally popular figure for Arab-Israelis. (photo: GS)

Ruttenberg: Ms. Zoabi, why is it important for Palestinian-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, Palestinian citizens of Israel – whatever the terminology may be – to vote on election day?

MK Zoabi: First of all, just 50 percent of the Palestinians in Israel vote. For me, it’s important to vote because it’s our voice, it’s our struggle. I know that the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) is not the tool of struggle; we have also other tools which we must use. For example, demonstrations, to raise awareness, are even more important that being in the Knesset. But in the Knesset, I must first of all struggle against racism, I must represent my people, I must represent the rights of my people. I must say to the Jewish system – to the Israeli system – that I am here, I am a native, this is my homeland, I have rights, I don’t agree with racist policies, I don’t agree with racist laws, I don’t agree to turn[ing] me into a second-class or third-class citizen, or even to treat me as a stranger in my homeland. Because I know that I have only two ways: either to give up my rights or to struggle. I believe that every person that has his will and is well-organized, and who [has] empowered himself, he must just represent his rights and represent his position, and we must do that as natives here.

Ruttenberg: You’ve seen in recent years the number of Palestinian-Israeli voters dropping in their percentages. So you are sort of fighting an uphill battle in encouraging people to go out and vote. Why is that? Why are the numbers falling?

MK Zoabi: I can understand… I do understand why the percentages fell, because the Palestinians lost their confidence in the Israeli tools of democracy. We know that Israel hasn’t been a democracy, never. But they also don’t believe that we can make any difference while we are inside the Knesset. It is also an indication of a lack of confidence in ourselves. It is also an indication of our daily struggle for our food, for our basic services and basic rights. People are also losing their confidence in the system but also losing their confidence in themselves. And my message is not that we must be confident about the willingness of Israel to change. No, this is not my message. My message is that we must be strong enough to struggle, that we must have confidence in ourselves, and that we cannot convince Israel while we are weak, while we are disempowered. We must empower ourselves. And this is one – just one – tool of empowering ourselves.

Ruttenberg: The Arab parties themselves are split. You have three popular parties presenting the Arab vote, which are actually splitting the Arab vote. Is that a problem for you, that there’s not a united Arab front?

MK Zoabi: Yes, for my party, the National Democratic Assembly, we also try to unify between the parties. We know that we lose at least five seats when we run as three separate parties than one unified party. We can be 16 seats according to polls and public opinion. And as a national party, we believe that we must be unified, also in our work – both inside and outside the Knesset. But the communist party – which doesn’t define itself as an Arab party but rather as a Jewish-Arab party, even though 87% of its voters are Arabs – says, yes, I can give up five seats, I can give up 150,000 voters, because this is part of my ideology – to be a Jewish and Arab party.

Ruttenberg: How do you personally feel when Palestinian-Israelis vote for the Zionist parties, or the Jewish parties, or when some of them even run on their lists?

MK Zoabi: I think this is a natural phenomenon. I think every oppressed people sometimes lacks also the confidence… the oppressor succeeded to have the impression and feeling that we are disempowered, that we cannot represent ourselves, that we need strong parties in order to make some changes from [the] inside, and I think this is natural in any society. And this is the strategy which Israel uses in order to re-define our identiy, to adapt us to say that ‘you don’t have the power and ability or power to make any change, because you are a minority, you will still be a minority.’ So maybe, by just agreeing with the Zionist system, maybe by not changing the basic lines of the State, you can reach some benefits here and there and you can make some changes. Of course, we don’t agree with this and we are sure that the only way to have our rights is to struggle for our rights, not to be a part of the system but to challenge the system. If you are a racist, I cannot just agree with your racism and hope that sometime, maybe somehow, you will just give up some of your privileges to me. But now I think the percentage of those who will vote for the Zionist parties will be 20-22 percent. This is also part of our struggle to convince the people that you cannot make changes by adopting the racism, by admiring even those who are racist against you. Again, this is part of the strategy of empowering the people.

Ruttenberg: You’ve become quite a well-known figure, but you are also quite divisive, not just to Jewish-Israelis, but even some Palestinian-Israelis who say that the elected Arab officials often prioritize the national interests of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza before worrying about the domestic concerns of the Arab population in Israel. How do you respond to that sort of concern?

MK Zoabi: This is not a concern of the people, I think. This is not an independent thinking of the people themselves. This is Israeli propaganda, [which] these weakened people have adopted. This is lack of political awareness because the Israeli media doesn’t cover, for example, my daily work in the parliament. They don’t cover, for example, that I succeeded in a program which guarantees 3,000 Palestinian women loans to develop businesses. I worked very hard to raise the percentage of Palestinian working women, and one my small successes was to make the Labor Ministry agree to this program. No one… the Israeli media didn’t talk about that. So the Palestinians don’t know about that. Also, there was (a report put out) about the most active MKs (Members of Knesset) who raise issues (regarding) women. And who was the most active MK who raised the issues of women regarding employment, regarding education, regarding violence against women? It was Hanin Zoabi.

Ruttenberg: Of all women?

MK Zoabi: It was (a poll) about all women in general, but of course I concentrated more on Palestinian women. But it was me among the 120 (Knesset members). The Israeli media didn’t say anything, the Israeli media (didn’t) cover it, except for one article in Haaretz’s The Marker. So it’s lack of awareness, lack of information. And again, it is the claims of the Israeli MKs, it’s the claims of the Zionist parties, which some of our people just repeat without thinking or without really following what we are doing in the Knesset. And part of our work is also to raise awareness about how we work inside the Knesset and what we do.

Ruttenberg: Like it or not, you are a citizen of the State of Israel, and you are a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Are you proud of that?

MK Zoabi: I’m proud that I represent my people. I am proud that in front of incitement – in front of three years of incitement – I didn’t hesitate once, I didn’t change my attitudes, I didn’t adapt my discourse to satisfy the Israelis consensus. (I’m proud of) representing my people with pride, of representing my identity as a native, as a Palestinian. I am proud of that.

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    1. Kolumn9

      If Zoabi wants to know why Israeli Arabs are not voting she should look in the mirror. You can’t pursue an anti-State ideology without delegitimizing the state and its institutions (including elections) among your voters.

      Reply to Comment
      • Party list parliamentary democracies are rather effective at silencing minority representation. Party leaders can enforce voting at jeopardy of losing one’s list standing. In district parliamentary democracies there is more freedom in voting, as one represents a district, not just the party, making it harder to de-list rebels. In general perception, Arab voters see a completely useless role in the Knesset. Overlay this with ignored High Court decisions favoring Arabs (like State signs in both Arabic and Hebrew), the Land Authority’s expulsion of Arabs but not Jews from household land, highly biased building permit decesions, and many civil rights failures, such as no prosecution of the Nazareth 13 and the Citizenship Law Case which limits the marriage prospects of Arab citizens, and I am rather surprised that percentage turnout is as high as it has been.

        You are losing another civil tie to the State through systematic exclusion of Arabs in political, economic, and civil life. Stories of the kind of exclusions listed above endure through telling, accumulating folk history evidence against political participation as puppet like at best. Zoabi’s remarkable stand is probably one of the few counter folk tells (not tales) urging continued participation. As you would not want to be a silenced puppet, nor do they.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          There is no systematic exclusion of Arabs in political, economic and civil life. You are buying somebody’s BS and being far away you have no first hand experience to know otherwise.

          The Arabs are excluding themselves politically by voting for parties with political narratives that leaves little room for cooperation with the state or with the mainstream parties.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Suad Farah

      I’m one of those Palestinian women very interested in politics and I don’t believe that the Arab parties are doing enough for us Palestinians in Israel, that’s why I will not vote for Balad. I never have and never will vote for Hadash because they are liars. Ahmad Tibi is unfortunately allied with the Islamic party and others with whom I never had and will never have anything in common. So who’s left? I don’t know. Maybe this time Da’am …

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Zoabi’s incendiary actions and speeches simply convince most Israelis that she and those who support her will never accept peace with Israel. I, as a right-wing Orthodox/religious Israel who plans to vote for the Bayit Yehudi would have no problem having Arabs serve as cabinet ministers in a right-wing gov’t, as long as they accept Israel as a Jewish ZIONIST state, even if they said they supported Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state.

      The diviseness of the Arab political system encourages extremism of the type Zoabi represents, each one trying to outdo the other in Israel bashing and this is holding back development of the entire sector.

      Regarding the higher unemployment among Arab workers, it must be remembered that there is an extensive Arab underground economy that is not taxed and is not official. There are many Arabs (and Jews for that matter) who are officially unemployed but who in fact do work in that black economy.

      Reply to Comment
      • Zionism is difficult to define as applied because Israeli State policy enables settlement expansion to the extent of ignoring settler violations of Palestinian land use rights. You are willing to disassociate Zionism from such expansion as such, but the last few years have created the opposite impression. As I keep saying, your Declaration of Independence enshrines the free ingress of Jews into Israel. I view this as a meta-constitutional principle which cannot be altered so long as Israel exists as a State–no constitutional convention or Knesset vote can take it away. If free ingress is core Zionism (you decide), then you can take the Declaration as primary and have that. But you will also have to accept equal protection of political, civil and social rights across race, sex, and religion. If Zionism means not accepting such, then your Declaration is not Zionist. No Knesset can take free ingress away, in my view. What exactly, then, do you want your Arab citizens to say which is different than your Declaration?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          You present false dichotomies and expect people to play along.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Charles-Jerusalem

      Yeer yerr ! Zuabi here and Zuabi there. Shamanu !
      She and her party are not ZIONIST.
      Israel is a democraty and authorize people like Zuabi and her party to exist, to militate and enter the Knesset, this is ok, it even makes me proud of being part of this democraty BUT:
      Zuabi and her party must remain where there are now, an extreme minority.

      Reply to Comment
    5. directrob

      If I compare what Zuabi says with the content international law or UNGA and UNSC resolutions (those with an overwhelming majority in favor), I would consider her a moderate and Israeli Zionism extreme.

      Reply to Comment
    6. JKNoReally

      Roee – its getting a little silly at this point to pretend that Zuabi and her follows are driven by anger about income inequality in Israel, given that they openly state over and over again that their grievance is the Nakba, the loss of the land, the Jewish state. Make excuses and cover for them if you want, but its not responsible or accurate.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        You hide behind aunt Sally.

        MK Zoabi complains about “basic rights”. For the careful reader that includes a lot of things (yes even the right to work).

        Roe writes:
        “But Israel’s Arabs are twice as likely to be unemployed as its Jews, and two-thirds of their children are deemed poor. That’s triple the rate compared to the country’s Jewish population. So I wondered: how loyal has the State been to them?”

        This does not suggest that MK Zoabi is driven by anger over income inequality. It does suggest that Roe thinks the Israeli state is disloyal to Palestinians with an Israeli nationality.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Since there is no such thing as “Palestinian with Israeli nationality” the state can’t be disloyal to them.

          As of and poverty – Israeli Arabs spend MUCH less on their living. Food is 3-5 times cheaper than in Israel, housing is free, hardly any taxes, fuel and construction material at discounted rates – half the price compared to Israel. Also, I’d say that at least 80% of Israeli Arab economy is under the radar, which means that people who are registered as unemployed as a matter of fact are working in companies which are not even registered.

          Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            Nice try but it is about basic human rights …

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Care to list what specific “basic human rights” of Israeli Arabs are infringed?

            I know that I’m asking too much and you won’t do it, yet nevertheless I’ll ask – just to show you how full of it you are.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            I’ve asked you a simple question, but instead of answering you are referring me to a video of one of greatest liars of 21st century and sworn enemy of Israel.

            That shows how much you are interested in a fair resolution of the conflict.

            Reply to Comment
          • directrob

            Actually she is quite inline with the UNGA resolutions and the facts as I know them. The land theft within Israel was and is just one example of why Israel is built on stolen land.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            I’ve asked one (1) simple question:
            What “basic human rights” of Israeli Arabs are infringed?

            And now you are mumbling something about UNGA resolutions.

            What exactly UNGA has to do with Israeli citizens?

            Reply to Comment
      • If Trespasser thinks Arab Israeli citizens are treated just fine, then there is no reason for him not to afirm his country’s founding document–it’s Declaration of Independence. Certainly such affirmation would just affirm the status quo.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          Unlike you, I don’t have to “think” how Israeli Arabs are treated.
          All I have to do is have a short walk to Jaffa, or a not-so-long drive to Zarzir.

          Reply to Comment
    7. herb

      I am confused. Ms Zoabi is a devoted opponent of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Yet, by participating in the Knessset, doesn’t she legitimize the zionist entity?

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mark

      Racism much? How many times can Roee Rottenberg call into question the loyalty of Palestinain citizens of Israel? Maybe instead of implying that they are a fifth column, you could try asking whether the state represents all of its citizens? The left turns out to be just as racist as the right in Israel, yet again.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        By your logic state must “represent” even those who openly declare that the state is not legitimate.

        Nice example of doublethink.

        Reply to Comment
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