JERUSALEM — An Israeli-Arab lawmaker’s decision to join hundreds of activists on a pro-Palestinian flotilla has elevated her from relative political obscurity, transforming her into the poster child for the growing rift between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority.
Unapologetic for defying Israel’s Gaza blockade and being on board the boat where activists clashed with Israeli commandos during last week’s raid on the flotilla, Hanin Zoabi has received death threats, was nearly assaulted in parliament and faces high-level calls to strip her of Israeli citizenship.
In an interview, Zoabi said she has no regrets. She says she was on a different part of the ship, far away from the violence that left nine activists dead and dozens wounded after the naval troops rappelled onto the boats in international waters and clashed with knife and club-wielding Turkish activists. She further enraged Israelis by accusing the military of sparking the bloodshed.
“The Israeli military is like a rapist that gets scratched and then blames the victim,” she told The Associated Press. “Israel acts like a bully. Its barbaric behavior violates international laws.”
Zoabi’s participation on the blockade-busting flotilla was widely seen as a provocation in Israel even before the violence. Israel considers Gaza’s Hamas rulers to be terrorists, and announced ahead of time that it would not allow the flotilla, led by a Turkish Islamic charity with ties to Hamas, to reach the territory.
But when it emerged that Zoabi was on the ship carrying the Turkish activists involved in the violence, she faced a wave of accusations of treason.
The charges have highlighted the schism between Israeli-Arabs and their Jewish counterparts as Israel is facing widespread condemnation over the incident and is still struggling with the seemingly untenable peace process with the Arabs.
Israeli Arabs make up about one-fifth of Israel’s population. Although they enjoy equal citizenship rights, they have suffered from decades of discrimination, high unemployment, poverty and are often viewed through a prism of mistrust.
A Palestinian uprising last decade, as well as wars against Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and Hamas, have added to the tensions as Arab politicians have sided with Israel’s enemies. Just two weeks ago, Israel indicted two prominent Arab activists for allegedly spying for Hezbollah.
The former leader of Zoabi’s Balad party, Azmi Bishara, fled Israel in 2007 after police charged him with passing information to Hezbollah agents during Israel’s war against the Lebanese militia the previous year.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab parliamentarian from a more mainstream Arab party, said he too has been subjected to death threats in the wake of the flotilla bloodshed.
He said relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel have yet to heal since the outbreak of the bloody Palestinian uprising in 2000, when 13 Arab citizens of Israel were killed in clashes with police.
“During times of violent conflicts, there is an increase in tensions,” he said. “Any time we take a position it is always interpreted as treason, as stabbing Israel in the back.”
Zoabi, 41, has irked Israel before by calling it a racist state and boycotting the playing of the national anthem when she was sworn into parliament last year.
But her proximity last week to the Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara vessel sparked unprecedented outrage.
“Go to Gaza, you traitor,” lawmaker Miri Regev screamed at her in Arabic in parliament. Another member of parliament, Yoel Hasson, called her a terrorist and suggested she be searched for weapons when entering the building.
“Hanin Zoabi has crossed every possible line,” he said. “I told her ‘you should be singing the praise of Israel for being a democracy that allows even someone like you to behave the way you are behaving.'”
Another lawmaker, Anastassia Michaeli from the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction, had to be physically restrained from lunging at the podium to grab the microphone while Zoabi was speaking.
“Someone who is a traitor and does not identify with the country they represent cannot be in parliament,” Michaeli said in an interview. “She doesn’t represent the Israeli Arabs – she represents the terror organizations.”
On Monday, a parliamentary committee sanctioned Zoabi for her actions aboard the flotilla, recommending that she be stripped of parliamentary privileges, such as her diplomatic passport. Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, has asked legal authorities to investigate whether Zoabi should lose her citizenship.
Zoabi remained unfazed by the storm surrounding her.
“I understand that the rage stems from racism. Israeli society lives in a ghetto mentality,” she said. “I despise the Israeli parliament and its political violence.”
Zoabi, a former school teacher, comes from a political family. Her great-uncle, Seif al-Din Zoabi, was mayor of the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth and a member of the Israeli parliament shortly after it was established. Another relative, Abed al-Aziz Zoabi, was the first Arab to serve as a deputy Cabinet minister.
Her departure from her mainstream lineage reflects the shift in Israeli-Arab politics. Zoabi rejects Israel as a Jewish state and thinks Jews should not receive preferential treatment.
“I feel very loved on the Arab street and around the world,” she said. “In Israel, among the Jews, I am the most hated person around.”