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Haneen Zoabi: A politician worth voting for

In this part of the world we have become accustomed to politicians rushing to the aid of ailing bankers or filing expense claims for fictitious second mortgages. In the case of MP Douglas Hogg, this was taken to the extreme of procuring public funds for the maintenance of his moat. In the wake of the expenses scandal at Westminster, Transparency International, the body that fights corruption in public life around the world, found that it had ‘grievously undermined the legitimacy of parliament’ and severely dented public confidence in their representatives. In Ireland, the recently published Mahon Tribunal (March 2012) established to investigate corruption in the planning process found that corruption was ‘endemic and systemic’ and ‘affected every level of Irish political life’ (Irish Times, 24 March 2012). 

In the midst of so much negativity swirling around political life in Britain and Ireland, it was refreshing to encounter a politician from a deeply divided part of the world tied to conviction and principal and motivated by social justice and equality. Haneen Zoabi is a Palestinian member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, representing the Balad party, who was born in Nazareth and has become a touchstone for truth and democracy in a country riven with inequality and discrimination. Haneen is a passionate advocate for the rights of the minority Arab population in Israel which represents a very significant 1.2 million people or 18 per cent of the population. She argues that Arab employment and education statistics fall well below their population total with Palestinians making up just 7.9 per cent of university students, holding 7.6 percent of government jobs, 2 percent of employment in the public sector and 1 percent of posts in the private sector (Irish Times, 7 August 2012). 

Haneen was elected to the Knesset in 2009 and was soon at the centre of a political and public storm in 2010 when she courageously agreed to join the Gaza aid flotilla. She was aboard the Mavi Marmara when the Israeli military stormed the vessel and killed nine Turkish activists which she described as a ‘pirate military operation’ (ibid). Viewing her participation in the flotilla as something approximating treachery, the Knesset voted to end three of her parliamentary privileges: the right to have a diplomatic passport; entitlement to financial assistance should she require legal support; and the right to visit countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations. She was also stripped of the right to participate in Knesset debates and to vote in committees. 

What perhaps also underpinned these sanctions is Haneen’s unstinting characterisation of Israel as a racist state in which she says there are 30 laws that legally discriminate against Palestinians. One of these laws is designed to preserve a Jewish majority by placing marital restrictions on Palestinians living in Israel. As Haneen suggests: ‘I cannot marry a Palestinian from Ramallah or Gaza, or from Lebanon or Syria and have a family here, because Israel wants to preserve a Jewish majority’ (28 March 2012). 

She condemns the description of Israel as a Jewish state which defines the country on the basis of ethnicity rather than a shared citizenship and, more importantly, ignores the indigenous status of the Palestinian people that was brutally usurped in the Nakba of 1948. She argues that since the founding of the Jewish state it has undermined the rights of Palestinian citizens through chronic, institutionalised discrimination. Haneen suggests that Israel should be a democratic state, not an ethnic state, and argues that: 

“It is our land that Israel confiscates: 82% so far. We do not have the right to use it. It has constructed 600 Jewish cities and villages and hundreds of Jewish housing communities, which by law we do not have the right to reside in. It is our homes that get demolished, our history that is rewritten. It is we who are separated from our families and excluded from services, education and jobs” (Guardian, 29 June 2011). 

The level of discrimination in Israeli society was underlined when a letter was published by a group of publicly funded rabbis calling on Israeli Jews not to rent flats and houses to Palestinians, something the Israeli political leadership took no practical action against (The Palestine Monitor, 16 January 2012). This followed an earlier opinion poll which found that 68 percent of the Jewish public would not want to live next to Arabs (Haaretz, 22 March 2006). 

The level of political disaffection felt by the Arab minority is reflected in voter participation in elections. In the 2001 election just 18 percent of Arab citizens voted as the majority either boycotted the ballot entirely or cast a blank vote of protest. The election came a year after 13 Arabs were killed by Israeli police during riots as the second intifada broke out; none of the officers involved faced trial (BBC, 2009). In the 2009 election, Arab participation increased but just over half (53.4 percent) of eligible voters cast a ballot as the combination of a sense of disempowerment in regard to political influence and the increasing use of voter boycott as a tactical response to discriminatory legislation, has reduced Palestinian engagement with the ballot box. 

The Israel Democracy Institute (2012) has argued that ‘The ever-growing trend to boycott, which is an expression of an entire public's perception of its alienation from the State, is a warning that a genuine democracy cannot afford to ignore’. However, is Israel a ‘genuine democracy’ and can parliamentary politics deliver for the Palestinian minority? The West Bank and Gaza Strip tend to dominate media coverage of the Middle-East with the plight of the minority Arab population of Israel often overlooked. Haneen used her visit to Ireland to call for greater advocacy on behalf of this beleaguered minority. She feels that Israel is sensitive to international criticism of its definition of democracy and urges greater scrutiny and challenging of racist and discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. 

Such a passionate and courageous representative in the Knesset may persuade more Palestinians to engage with politics and challenge the system from within as well as through non-violent direct actions in civil society. Following the removal of her parliamentary privileges and participation in the Gaza flotilla, Haneen said ‘I was not elected to keep silent or to sit at the table and clap’. Possibly your only regret after listening to Haneen Zoabi will be that she is not standing for election in a constituency near you. 


BBC News, 23 July 2009, 

Daily Telegraph, ‘MPs expenses: what does it take to maintain a moat?’, 15 May 2009, 

Guardian, Haneen Zoabi, ‘The Palestinian Papers’, 31 January 2011, 

Guardian, Haneen Zoabi, ‘An Israeli Trap for Britain’, 29 June 2011 

Nobel Women’s Initiative, 28 March 2012 

Haaretz, ‘Poll: 68% of Jews would refuse to live in same building as an Arab’, 22 March 2012 

Irish Times, ‘To have one taoiseach on the take is unfortunate, to have two seems careless’, 24 march 2012. 

Israeli Democracy Institute, ‘Participation, Abstention and Boycott: Trends in Arab Voter Turnout in Israeli Elections’, 24 July 2012 

The Mahon Tribunal, The Final Report of the Tribunal into Certain Planning Matters and Payments,, March 2012 

The Palestine Monitor, ‘Chief rabbi of Safed sees nothing wrong with overt racism’,, 16 January 2012 

Transparency International, ‘Submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life Review of MPs’ Expenses’, June 2009,