The High Court spent most of Tuesday’s hearing questioning Zoabi’s politics rather than deliberating whether the Knesset had the right to suspend her in the first place.
Israel’s High Court of Justice held a discussion Tuesday morning over Knesset member Haneen Zoabi’s (Balad) petition to overrule a decision to suspend her from parliamentary debates for six months. The decision was put into effect by the Knesset Ethics Committee on July 29 and is due to expire at the end of January 2015. Tuesday’s session ended without a decision, but justices said one would be made in the coming days.
The suspension was implemented based on statements Zoabi made during a radio interview in June about the abduction of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank (before their fate was known). Here is what she said:
Is it really strange that the people who live under occupation and who do not live a normal life but live in a reality in which Israel kidnaps detainees on a daily basis; is it strange that these people commit a kidnapping? They are not terrorists, even if I do not agree with their actions, these people do not have any escape, any escape….These people do not see a possibility to change this reality, and so they are forced to use these means until Israel behaves a little, until Israel’s society and Israeli citizens behave a little, until they look at the suffering and feel the suffering of others.
Despite stating she does not support the abduction, and in principle opposes any acts of harm against civilians, her refusal to call the kidnappers “terrorists” led Israeli politicians to claim that she violated the Knesset’s code of conduct and therefore can be suspended (the code normally relates to statements made inside the Knesset). At the time, Zoabi tried to explain in the Hebrew media that she refuses to use the word “terrorists,” as it reflects a unilateral Israeli point of view that portrays Israelis as the sole victims.
The petition, filed on Zoabi’s behalf by Adalah, an NGO dedicated to the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), argues that that the suspension violates her right to freedom of speech. The petition further claimed that it is not within the Ethics Committee’s jurisdiction to limit an MK’s activities.
According to Adalah, this is the harshest penalty ever imposed by the committee in the history of the Knesset concerning a single statement. It is also the first time that the committee has imposed a punishment for a statement that did not include any threats, incitement, contempt, slander or defamation:
The harshest punishment imposed by the committee against a member of Knesset based on political statements was the suspension of MK Aryeh Eldad from all Knesset meetings for only one day, because of his statement against the Sharon-Olmert government, saying: ‘Whoever relinquishes an area under Israeli sovereignty must be killed.’
According to some present in the courtroom, the judges spent most of the time interpreting Zoabi’s statement and politics rather than deliberating whether the committee had the right to make such a decision.
Haaretz reporter Revital Hovel, who was in the courtroom, tweeted one of the justices remarks: “I don’t understand how a person who proclaims to be an advocate for non-violence can say about someone who kidnaps children that they are not terrorists.”
Responding to the nature of the court’s discussion Tuesday, Zoabi told the press:
What I do is the right of any Knesset member and I believe and hope that the judges will discuss the matter at hand, since they are the last gatekeeper of human rights, democracy and equality. I will continue my fight. The fascist right wingers are the ones who should be in court.
Adalah Attorney Hassan Jabarin said that if the justices do not decide to rescind the decision to suspend Zoabi, it could pave the way for other Jewish Knesset members to “punish” representatives of the Arab minority for their political opinions.
Balad party chairman Jamal Zahalka said “there is no parliament in the world in which the freedom of speech of one of its members is more restricted than that of a citizen.”
Once the discussion ended, Itamar Ben Gvir, a well-known far-right activist and attorney (who is currently representing the suspects in the arson attack on the bilingual school in Jerusalem) and other rightists accosted Zoabi in the hallway of the Supreme Court. In this video some of them are heard calling Zoabi a “terrorist” as she walks out of court.
Zoabi became a target for the Israeli right following her participation in the first Gaza flotilla in 2010. Despite the fact that no charges were brought against her, Zoabi was stripped of some of her parliamentary privileges at the time and was attacked in the Knesset by some right-wing members. In 2012 the Supreme Court reversed the Central Election Committee’s decision to prevent Zoabi from running in the election. Right-wing MKs, chief among them the Likud’s Miri Regev and Danny Danon, have vowed that they will continue their efforts to disqualify Zoabi and her party from participating in Israeli elections.