Israel escalates assaults on democratic rights

Haneen Zoabi, a member of the Israeli Knesset, was stripped of her parliamentary privileges on July 13 following her participation in the Gaza flotilla, which was attacked by Israeli commandos who murdered nine human rights activists.

Zoabi, one of the 10 Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who are members of the Knesset, was stripped of her right to hold a diplomatic passport, the right to free legal counsel in case she faces trial and all privileges related to travelling overseas as a member of parliament. Zoabi also faces threats of criminal charges by Israel’s Attorney General Department for her participation in the flotilla.

Assault in parliament

Zoabi, who was aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was attacked, recounted her experience to the Knesset on 2 June. According to the June 3 Jerusalem Post, Knesset members from both the coalition and opposition parties not only sought to shout down Zoabi, but also physically charged the podium in an attempt to stop her from continuing her speech. When other Palestinian members of the Knesset attempted to prevent the physical attacks on Zoabi, they were also attacked.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Likud member Miri Regev screamed abuse at Zoabi, yelling at her “Go back to Gaza, you traitor”, while another member from the supposedly centrist Kadima party accused Zoabi of being a terrorist. On June 2, Israeli news site YNet reported that during the session, Moshe Mutz Matalon, from the openly racist anti-Arab Yisrael Beitenu party, also praised the murder of the nine human rights activists on the Mavi Marmara, saying, “Unfortunately, the [commando] fighters acted with too much restraint. They left only nine floating voters.”

Before being screamed down, Zoabi stated that she felt it was her moral and political duty to participate in the flotilla and to oppose the imprisonment of 1.5 million people. Zoabi also pointed out to those calling her a criminal, that unlike the Israeli commandos, she did not murder anyone. In a press release later issued by her parliamentary office, Zoabi noted: “Israel, following the international reaction to its bloody attack on the humanitarian flotilla, is embarrassed and confused. Unable to deal with the shock and anger of the international community, I have become their punching bag.”

In an attempt to silence Zoabi and other members of the Knesset who did not toe the Zionist line, a number of Knesset members announced that they had drafted legislation to punish Zoabi for exercising her right to freedom of speech and to prevent her from running in future Knesset elections.

Silencing critics

US Jewish blogger Tony Greenstein wrote on June 8 that the attacks on Zoabi were an attack on the entirety of Israel’s Palestinian Arab population. According to Greenstein, “What we are seeing is not merely a personal vendetta but a deliberate and concerted attempt to humiliate, intimidate and persecute a political representative of Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20% of the population”.

The attack on Zoabi, while a part of the campaign to silence and further marginalise Israel’s Palestinian citizens, is also part of a broader attempt to silence internal critics, both Palestinian and Jewish, of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies. In May, Dr Omar Saeed, a member of Zoabi’s Balad party and Amir Makhoul, the director general of Ittijah (Union of Arab Community-based Associations) were arrested when their homes were raided in the middle of the night. The two men were accused of spying for Hezbollah. Their arrests were not initially made public due to the military censor, a department of the Israeli government, imposing a gag order preventing the media from reporting the arrests. The arrests became public knowledge in Israel only after international bloggers began a campaign to free Makhoul, forcing the Israeli military to lift the gag order.

On June 8, Saeed was sentenced to seven months’ jail after striking a plea bargain with the state, which charged him with “servicing an illegal organisation” rather than “contact with a foreign agent” and “delivery of information for the benefit the enemy”. In a media statement, Saeed’s legal team noted, “The cancellation of the most serious charges against Dr. Saeed proves that the State Prosecution inflated the charges to begin with in order to justify its arbitrary and illegal actions ... against him”. The flimsiness of the case was demonstrated in a June 8 article published by YNet. According to YNet, while an apparent Hezbollah agent had approached the 50-year-old Saeed in Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt in 2008, Saeed had rejected the alleged agent’s overtures and later ripped up the contact details given to him, rebuffing any further contact.

Two days earlier, on June 6, Makhoul, whose lawyers had been prevented from seeing him for 12 days and who suspected he’d been tortured in custody, was finally able to speak with the Israeli media when his court case began. Makhoul said his and Saeed’s arrests, as well as the attacks on Zoabi, had nothing to do with security, but were part of “a trend of breaking the bones of political figures”.

The Israeli state’s attack on dissenting citizens, particularly Palestinian Arab citizens, is nothing new. Since its beginning, the Zionist state has sought punitive control of the Palestinian population in both Israel and the occupied territories. From 1948 until 1966, Palestinians living inside Israel, despite nominally being Israeli citizens, were subject to military regulations. Unlike Jewish citizens, Palestinian Arabs were subject to severe restrictions on their movement and prohibited from organising politically; Palestinian Arab political associations and parties were banned and Palestinian Arab publications censored.

New campaigns

Since the 2009 Israeli election, which resulted in Yisrael Beteinu forming government with Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, dozens of anti-democratic laws, specifically aimed at further marginalising Palestinian citizens, have been introduced into the Knesset. The last year has also brought a dramatic increase in the attacks, both in the Knesset and in broader Israeli society, on the political and civil rights of Jewish Israelis who oppose the government’s occupation and apartheid policies.

While Yisrael Beteinu, Likud and Kadima have introduced and supported bills to criminalise and jail any Israeli citizen advocating for the Palestinian-initiated boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, extreme right groups have launched a campaign against a range of Israeli human rights and civil society organisations. In early 2010, a campus-based group, Im Tirtzu, which receives partial funding from the Christians for Israel lobby led by anti-Semitic preacher John Hagee, targeted Naomi Chazan and the New Israel Fund (NIF). Im Tirtzu’s campaign, which included full-page advertisements, sought to depict Chazan and the NIF as treasonous informants. The attack also sought to discredit the many Israeli human rights and civil society groups that had received NIF funding and had exposed the human rights abuses carried out by Israel in the occupied territories, as well as the war crimes it engaged in during its 22-day assault on Gaza in 2008-2009.

In April 2010, a survey commissioned by the Tel Aviv University-based Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace Research found that the majority of Jewish Israelis held similar positions to that of Im Tirtzu, favouring closing down Israeli human rights organisations that exposed human rights abuses by Israel’s military. According to the survey, more than half of the Jewish Israelis surveyed believe that “there is too much freedom of expression” in Israel, while nearly 58% believed that Israeli human rights organisations that expose abuses carried out by Israel shouldn’t be allowed to operate freely. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper on April 28 stated, “The poll also found that most of the respondents favour punishing Israeli citizens who support sanctioning or boycotting the country, and support punishing journalists who report news that reflects badly on the actions of the defence establishment”. In addition, 65% believed that the Israeli media should be censored and barred from publishing any news deemed by defence officials to endanger state security.

In reaction to the survey, Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz, “Israelis have a distorted perception of democracy”, and “the public recognises the importance of democratic values, but when they need to be applied, it turns out most people are almost anti-democratic”.