Campaign of state-backed political persecution against MK Haneen Zoabi
* MK Zoabi called in for police investigation
* Incitement investigations and unprecedented suspension of MK Zoabi from Knesset are efforts to silence criticism of Israeli military operations in Gaza and to vilify Arab minority
* Outpouring of anti-Arab statements and calls for violence by Jewish politicians have been ignored by attorney-general
MK Haneen Zoabi was called for a police investigation in Lod today over allegations from the police that she incited against, and insulted, a public official – a policeman – outside Nazareth’s district court on 6 July. The investigation has been authorised by the Israeli attorney general.
The incitement investigation, one of a series being considered against MK Zoabi, follows her suspension on 29 July from the Knesset for a six-month period by the Knesset ethics committee. This suspension is the longest in the Knesset’s history and the maximum the committee can impose under Israeli law.
MK Zoabi is the only public figure in Israel to be facing an investigation for incitement, even though the past few weeks have seen an outpouring of anti-Arab racist statements, as well as calls for violence and threats to Palestinians both in Gaza and in Israel from leading Jewish politicians, rabbis and academics.
Attached to this press release is a long list of such extreme statements by leading public figures, none of whom is being investigated. These statements have been made by some of the people leading the campaign against MK Zoabi, such as the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the chair of the Knesset interior committee, Miri Regev.
MK Zoabi said: “I have no faith in the neutrality or fairness of this investigation. It is being pushed through at great speed to take advantage of the war atmosphere so that there is a national consensus in favour of punishing me.
“This is nothing more than political persecution, designed to seek revenge against me for my vocal opposition to the government’s policy of maintaining the occupation and waging a brutal war against the people of Gaza.
“The aim is to intimidate Arab citizens into a false silence to make it appear that there is only one view in Israel about its treatment of the Palestinians.”
Dangerous incitement from Jewish politicians
Recent statements by Lieberman calling for Israeli Jews to boycott Arab businesses and calls by MKs such Ayelet Shaked to murder civilians, including Palestinian women to stop them having babies, are grave hate crimes. They pose an especial threat to public order because Arab Palestinian citizens – one in five of the Israeli population – belong to a vulnerable national minority.
Racist statements and calls to violence have been made by senior politicians at a time when police have noted ultra-nationalist groups committing a record number of violent hate crimes – known locally as price-tag attacks – against Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied territories. These have targeted, in particular, recognisable places used by the Arab minority, including churches and mosques.
Inciteful statements by Jewish politicians have also contributed to a general atmosphere of anti-Arab hatred that has led to new forms of violent threats and sanctions against Arab citizens from Israeli Jewish society:
• 16-year-old Mohammed Khdeir was killed in East Jerusalem in an especially brutal attack, styled as “revenge”, by a cell of ultra-nationalists.
• Organised groups of rightwing thugs – some of them, like Beitar Jerusalem’s football supporters’ club, associated with Netanyahu’s Likud party – are roaming Israeli cities with mixed populations, attacking and beating anyone they identify as an Arab.
* Anti-war demonstrations have been attacked by organised rightwing groups, notably in Haifa and Tel Aviv, often with the police standing aside to allow violence against the demonstrators, both Jews and Arabs.
* Hundreds of Arab demonstrators, many of them children, have been rounded up by police following protests in Arab communities against Israel’s attack on Gaza. In many cases, the children’s rights to legal representation or having a parent present have been violated.
* There have been extensive reports in the Israeli media of businesses and local authorities implementing their own form of a Lieberman-style boycott, firing and disciplining Arab workers for making anti-war statements on social media.
• Universities have disciplined Arab students and withdrawn scholarships, again over comments made on social media against Israel’s attack on Gaza.
MK Zoabi said: “We now have a frightening Big Brother situation, where students and workers are losing their jobs or being putting under house arrest for nothing more than ‘liking’ on social media a call to demonstrate. Basic democratic norms have been discarded.”
Pattern of political persecution
The failure to investigate these statements, which are far harsher than anything MK Zoabi has uttered, shows the current actions against her are part of a pattern of political persecution and intimidation. This persecution has been sanctioned and encouraged by government officials and state prosecutors as a message to the large Arab Palestinian minority, one in five of Israel’s population.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about the current six-month suspension from the Knesset ethics committee is that MK Zoabi is being punished not for something she said but for something she refused to say.
The comment at the center of the ethics committee’s hearing against MK Zoabi was made during an interview on Radio Tel Aviv on 17 June 2014, five days after three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the West Bank. At the time, it was not known that the teenagers had been killed. Their bodies were found on 30 June. MK Zoabi upset the interviewer and many listeners by refusing to describe the abductors simplistically as “terrorists”.
MK Zoabi said in the 17 June interview: “Is it strange that people living under occupation and living impossible lives, in a situation where Israel kidnaps new prisoners every day, is it strange that they act this way? They are not terrorists. Even if I do not agree with them, they are people who do not see any way open to change their reality, and they are compelled to use means like these until Israel wakes up and sees the suffering, feels the suffering of the other.”
Almost all media coverage and even a reference to this statement by the Knesset ethics committee left out the part in which MK Zoabi said she did “not agree” with the kidnapping.
The attorney-general’s office announced on 24 July that it would not order a police investigation for incitement regarding the interview. The deputy attorney general, Raz Nizri, admitted that there was “a difficulty in seeing the statements as incitement to commit kidnapping”.
Suspension of MK Zoabi
Rather than withdraw the case against MK Zoabi, the ethics committee hearing on 29 July decided to impose the harshest suspension in its history, apparently to correct what was seen by its rightwing members as the attorney general’s failure to pursue the investigation. Rejecting the right to freedom of political expression, the committee ruled that MK Zoabi’s remarks “deviated from the realm of legitimate expression” for an MK.
The suspension strips MK Zoabi of the right to make speeches in the Knesset, submit parliamentary questions or initiate debates in committees or the Knesset chamber.
MK Zoabi said: “The ethics committee has denied me the right to represent my voters in the Knesset. In punishing me for carrying out my parliamentary duties, the committee has stripped them of their voice. In seeking to vilify me, the committee has vilified the large section of the Arab minority I and my Balad party represent.”
The campaign of persecution behind the ethics committee’s decision has been highlighted by Israeli legal experts. Aeyal Gross, constitutional law professor at Tel Aviv university, wrote recently in the Haaretz newspaper that the committee’s task is to regulate ethical behaviour inside the Knesset, not statements or behaviour outside it. “It’s not the committee’s job to punish an MK for making political statements, however unpopular, and especially not when they were made outside the Knesset,” he wrote.
He also noted that another statement by MK Zoabi cited by the committee – calling for “popular resistance” against the occupation – had been wilfully misinterpreted as incitement to violence. The statement, he noted, did not “constitute a call for violence; as Zoabi has stressed repeatedly, it’s a call for nonviolent resistance”.
Gross also pointed out the discriminatory nature of the committee’s punishment. When former MK Aryeh Eldad called in 2008 for Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of the time, to be sentenced to death for suggesting that parts of the occupied territories become a Palestinian state, the ethics committee suspended him for just one day. This was clear incitement to violence in a country where a former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was murdered by a rightwing extremist citing exactly this kind of justification for his actions.
Gross concluded: “This decision [against MK Zoabi] appears to be part of a broader persecution of Israel’s Arab minority. … Knesset members believe there’s only one permissible view of what constitutes the good of the state, and not only does the majority determine what it is, but it also tries to prevent anyone with a different view from expressing it. This reveals a lack of understanding of substantive democracy and effectively replaces it with a dictatorship of the majority. … [The committee’s decision] is paving the way to fascism and tyranny.”
Current police investigation
The attorney general Yehuda Weinstein announced on 25 July that he had instructed police to begin a formal investigation of MK Zoabi on suspicion of inciting others to violence and insulting a police officer.
MK Zoabi’s lawyers have not been provided with materials relevant to the investigation. However, Israeli media reports suggest that the central allegation is that she called an Arab policeman a “traitor” outside a court hearing on 6 July at Nazareth district court, where judges had been considering indictments against Arab demonstrators, many of them minors, accused of stone throwing. According to media reports, she also told the youths’ parents to spit in the faces of the police.
MK Zoabi will address these allegations as part of the investigation. However, it should be highlighted that during this period the police have not been acting as a neutral law enforcement body; they have been actively abusing their powers and denying people the right to peaceful demonstration.
Demonstrators have faced intimidation and persecution from the police. Clearly false or concocted evidence has been used to bring charges; there have been many reports of demonstrators, including children, being beaten after their arrest; police have circumvented the rights of minors to legal representation and having a parent present during questioning; and lawyers have reported police making surprise arrests against children in the middle of the night. All of these actions violate Israeli law.
According to the legal group Adalah, more than 600 people have been arrested over their alleged participation in protests since the beginning of July.
MK Zoabi has had personal experience of abusive police behaviour on several recent occasions, most notably at an anti-war demonstration in Haifa on 18 July. There she was verbally and physically abused by police officers, and handcuffed for half an hour. MK Zoabi has formally filed a complaint against the police for their behaviour at the demonstration. So far no investigation has been initiated.
A recent opinion poll conducted by the Knesset Channel TV station found that 89 per cent of Israeli Jews believe MK Zoabi’s citizenship should be revoked. This overwhelming hostility has been cultivated through an incitement campaign led by the right wing, including government officials, assisted by the Israeli media.
MK Zoabi said: “I am being judged not for my actions but by the aggressively jingoistic consensus that has gripped the Knesset, the media and the Israeli Jewish public.
“The goal is to stifle free speech critical of government policy and the occupation, and bolster the semblance of a national consensus that rejects all dissent and legitimises violence against Arab citizens. Israel is turning into a fascist state, and this investigation and suspension are the early warning signs.”
For more details:
Soheir Asaad – Parliamentary assistant tel: 00972 50 924 2401
Sami Ali – Balad’s group manager tel: 00972 52 407 0547