A controversial decision has been made by the Israeli election committee to ban Palestinian Israeli politician Haneen Zoabi, from running in the Israeli national elections in January. The committee decided to ban Zoabi, who currently holds a seat in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from running in the election because of her involvement with the Gaza Freedom flotilla.
Zoabi was on board the Mavi Marmara, along with 600 peace activists, during the raid by Israeli forces in 2010, in-which 9 activists were killed. Later that year, the Knesset voted to revoke three of her parliamentary privileges as a result of the incident, an act which Zoabi described as ‘vengeful’. Since the incident, she has faced mounting criticism from other Knesset members, who accuse her of ‘working for the enemy’. However, the committee decided not to ban Haneen Zoabi’s party Balad/Tijamu. Haneen had previously warned that to ban the party, would mean no Arabs would vote in the next election.
There are 1.6 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, making up 20% of the Israel’s population; they are an important voting block. However, Palestinians inside Israel increasingly feel that they are being treated as second class citizens and often complain of discrimination. According to a 2010 poll, 53% of Israelis think ‘Arabs should be encouraged to leave’ and 46% were opposed to living near Arabs. That same year the Israeli government held an exercise, in-which the security forces, prepared for ‘riots’ from its Arab citizens, in-response to their forceful ‘transfer’ from Israel.
The Palestinians have always turned out to vote, albeit in declining numbers. In 1955, despite living under martial law, 90% of Palestinians voted in the Israeli election, however by 2009, only 53.4% voted. In 2009, Balad/Tijamu won three seats, but there is increasing signs that Palestinians are even more disillusioned with voting, than in 2009. In that election Arab voters were mobilised under the banner ‘Vote to stop Lieberman’. Avigdor Lieberman the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beitainu party, managed to win 15 seats which enabled him to form coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party Likud.The increase in discrimination faced by Palestinians inside Israel and the failure to stop Lieberman might, mean a far lower turn-out at the next election. Whilst the banning of Zoabi from the election may only have marginal effect on voter turn-out, the symbolism of the ban has far wider ramifications for the State of Israel. Israel is under international pressure, due to its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
International figures such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu have labelled Israel as an Apartheid state. They are also coming under international scrutiny for its treatment of African immigrants. During the 2012 Gaza war, air raid shelters in Tel Aviv were guarded by security guards to prevent access by African Migrants during the attacks. This came after public rallies against the presence of these migrants in Israel. The ban on Zoabi will only add to growing international voices criticising, not only Israeli policy, but the foundations of the state itself.
The Balad/Tijamu party is subject to state pressure in the run-up to every election. The party’s founder Azmi Bishara, who now lives in exile, set-up Balad/Tijamu to be a liberal democratic party. The party’s objective is to change Israel from a Jewish state into a secular-democratic state for all its citizens both Jew and Arab. Balad/Tijamu does this by participating in elections in order to change the system from within.
Azmi Bishara also wanted to show the world the contradictions between a Jewish state and a democratic state by participating in elections. In 1999 he became the first Arab to announce his running for Prime Minister but he later pulled out. His campaign to delegitimize Israel using its political system earned him scorn and there was a campaign mounted against him. He was later accused of praising Hezbollah and was put on trial. After he went into exile, the Knesset passed a law stripping him of his citizenship. After Bishara, Zoabi was the next highest profile member of the movement and her ban will further weaken the party.
The knock on effect of this ban is that other Palestinian Israelis are likely to be discouraged from running in the elections. The ban is seen as further proof of discrimination against them and this will only further increase their alienation. Politically, the Arab vote is important as part of the goal of a democratic, secular state as large Arab turn-out would moderate the Israeli politics. Yet, over the last 30-years, Israel has consistently moved further right and this has consequences for the peace process, as well as for relations with Iran.
Palestinians increasingly believe that they will gain very little from the Knesset elections and have developed apathy towards it. There are also sharp divides within Palestinian Politics inside Israel over the issue of whether or not to participate in the elections. Political parties such as The Islamic movement in Israel northern wing, Abnaa-Balaad and civil society actors have been actively discouraging Palestinian voting and participation in Knesset elections.
They claim that voting ‘legitimises’ the status quo and the conditions in-which Palestinians inside Israel live. However, the Islamic movement in Israel southern wing, Balad/Tijamu, Hadash/Jabha and the United Arab Lists, all encourage Palestinian voting and field candidates for the elections. It is clear, that a Palestinian voter’s apathy is in part a response to divisions within Palestinian politics, as well as effective activism from parties and movements that discourage voting.
Meanwhile, Zoabi is mounting a legal challenge against the ruling, but her case is seen as further proof that Palestinians cannot expect much from the Knesset and Israeli political system. Her case represents a trend in Israel which is increasingly becoming intolerant of voices of dissent, and the ban of Zoabi raises serious questions about whether Israel is a democracy, theocracy or ethnocracy.
Photo: Fora do Eixo and WikiCommons