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Sunday
Jan062013

Israel Feature: "The Most Hated Woman in the Country?" --- Member of Knesset Hanin Zoabi

Haaretz headlines its profile and interview with Member of Knesset Hanin ZOabi, "What's It Like to Be the Most Hated Woman in Israel?"

Zoabi's sin? She dared to join the Freedom Flotilla of May 2010, which tried to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza. The lead ship of the Flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, was attacked by Israeli commandoes and nine Turkish passengers were killed.

Since then, Zoabi has faced bitter attacks in Israel. Last month, the Elections Commission ruled that she could not stand for re-election on 22 January. The decision was overturned last week by the Supreme Court.

At 9:00 A.M. on Thursday December 27, 2012, MK Hanin Zoabi entered a courtroom in the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem radiating optimism. Her experience as a Palestinian woman living in Israel (“It’s said that I am the most hated woman in the country,” she will tell me later) has led her to adopt a facial expression that does not betray emotions.

She does not seem bowed by the weight of events since she participated in the “Free Gaza” flotilla aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010 (the ship was intercepted by the Israeli army and nine activists died), even though she came under fire from every quarter and learned firsthand the meaning of a political lynching.

She takes a seat on the front row in the courtroom. By her side are Dr. Jamal Zahalka, the chairman of Balad, and Dr. Basel Ghattas, number three (after Zuabi) on the party’s list of Knesset candidates. Relatives and friends gaze at her with pride. “Here is our national hero,” the woman sitting next to me says.

An expanded panel of nine justices, headed by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, is considering the request by the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Zuabi from running for the Knesset. The committee, whose members include MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) and Aryeh Eldad, Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir from the new Otzma Leyisrael party, is represented by attorney Avi Halevy. Zoabi’s lawyers --- Hassan Jabareen and Sawsan Zaher from Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) --- sat perfectly still while Halevy presented his case, not reacting even when he referred to their client as “Hanin Zuobi” and turned Zahalka into former MK Nawaf Mazalha.

Halevy argued that Zoabi’s narrative would lead to the abolition of Independence Day and the naming of streets for Yasser Arafat and George Habash. Israeli currency, according to Halevy’s apocalyptic vision, would carry portraits of Arafat, Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyah and the recently assassinated Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. Instead of “Hatikva,” he continued, the Israeli national anthem would be “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi” (which is actually the Egyptian rather than the Palestinian anthem).

According to Halevy, Zoabi’s participation aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010 was an expression of her support for terrorism and for the armed struggle of Hamas. Articles she has written, along with the Balad platform, reminded Halevy of “historic processes which are difficult to predict....It took a long time to understand what happened in Germany, and we know where that ended.”

At the conclusion of the hearing, MK Michael Ben Ari asserted that if the Supreme Court did not uphold the disqualification, the justices themselves would deserve to be sent to serve on courts in Gaza.

The battle cries resounded a few minutes after Zoabi and the Balad representatives left the courtroom. “Terrorist! Filth! Kick out all the terrorists and throw the terrorist collaborators overboard!” Zuabi’s perma-smile froze, stretching her facial muscles tight, as if in a spasm. The right-wing activists, determined to prevent Zoabi from making a statement to the media in the Supreme Court building, started to push her escorts in an effort to get to her.

When camera crews rushed to capture the event, Zoabi and her group were caught in the crush. It took the ushers and security men a few minutes to recover. (“I’ve never seen anything like this in the Supreme Court,” one of them said.) “Look who the attackers are! Do something!” a woman shouted. Finally, Zuabi and the others were hustled out, surrounded by ushers.

Ben Ari seemed pleased with the turn of events. “If she is not disqualified she will throw a bomb in the Knesset,” he told reporters. “And then it will be said that two kilos of explosives is not a critical mass” – referring to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s opinion that there isn’t a “sufficient, exceptional critical mass of evidence” to justify Zoabi’s disqualification. “They should all be booted into Syria,” Ben Ari added.

The extremists won that skirmish. Zoabi was forced to make her statement to the media far from the Supreme Court building, on a busy street. The tension on her face was clear to see as she gave interviews to local and foreign media. “We expected the security people to intervene,” MK Zahalka said, “but unfortunately they did not do their job. We decided to leave by a side door in order to prevent escalation. The Kahanists would not have dared attack her. I know them to be cowards from my student days at the Hebrew University, when they harassed Arab students in exactly the same way. I fear for her life because of the incitement on the Internet and on television, which is liable to push a madman to try to harm her. There are people with her all the time, but she doesn’t always accept it. That is one of our problems.”

***

“I was relieved,” Zoabi tells Haaretz, after the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that she is entitled to run for the Knesset. “I wonder whether the court’s decision will change the mind of rank-and-file citizens who were persuaded that I broke the law and endangered the soldiers’ lives. Certainly I will not go from being a hated woman to being popular, but maybe people will consider listening to what I have to say. You know, it makes no difference whether I am talking about women’s employment or the status of Nazareth – it always comes back to the Marmara and that horrible, threatening woman.”

When she got up the next day in her parents’ home in Nazareth, where she lives, her mother embraced and kissed her but did not say a word, either good or bad. “My father didn’t say anything, either,” she says. “That is so typical. I am the eldest, and since childhood I have not shared things with my parents. Mother has complained for years that ‘Hanin doesn’t talk,’ and it’s true.”

Zoabi shrugs off the incident with the right-wingers in the court building. She is not afraid of them, she insists, and even chuckled when she noticed that I was shaken at the time. “I can triumph over the right-wingers who attacked us in the Supreme Court. I am a democrat and I have values, and they are a rabble.”

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