The “Most Hated Woman” in Israel is Leaving the Knesset

She has been vilified and verbally abused, called a traitor, a terrorist, and has been accused of treason – and all of that by her fellow parliamentarians inside the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Outside on the street, on social media, she has endured almost a decade of threats and insults.

She is also Israel’s first woman elected to the Knesset on a Palestinian party list.

First elected in 2009, and again in in 2013 and 2015, – Hanin Zoabi has become the face of the Palestinians that the Israeli right loves to hate.

Is this Most Hated Woman in Israel?

Vocal, outspoken, twice suspended from parliament and rarely out of the public eye, but just why does she think she attracts such opprobrium and hostility from across the Israeli political spectrum. She seems slightly surprised by the question, but shrugs, somewhat dismissively,

“I don’t deal with it I ignore it, when I see what they are doing in Gaza, when you kill every day and bomb,….shouting at me on the street in the supermarket, telling everyone don’t serve her”  she insists none of it bothers or affects her, before adding hesitantly “there are certain areas I don’t enter alone, to tell you the truth”

Zoabi first earned international and local notoriety in 2010 when, as a member of the Israeli Knesset, she took part in the ill-fated “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” of boats that set sail from Turkey to try to break the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza. It ended when Israel naval commandos boarded the Mavi Marama ship at night killing nine of its crew and passengers. Zoabi was suspended from the Knesset for her participation. She was suspended for a second time earlier this year, after calling Israeli soldiers’ “murderers” in a Knesset committee meeting.

We met in the offices of her political party ‘Balad, in Nazareth in northern Israel. Located in a busy industrial estate on the outskirts of the city the offices are on the third floor over what appears to be a curtain and window blind DIY shop. I arrive a few minutes early, offered ‘Turkish’ coffee and politely asked to sit and wait. I am told Hanin is on her way.

Offices of Balad Party Nazareth.jpg

Photograph – Office of Hanin Zoabi  Nazareth  (Paul Kearns)

Hanin Zoabi arrives about fifteen minutes late. Smaller than I expected, petite even, she nevertheless commands an immediate presence. Wearing hugely oversized stylish sun glasses and with her trademark sweep of full thick black hair parted to one side she cuts a striking figure, glamorous even. Polite and graceful, almost demur, she leads me into a conference room.

We are meeting the morning after Avigdor Liberman – the Ieader of a small right-wing Israel – had resigned as Israeli Defense Minister. The Government of Bibi Netanyahu appeared to be in crises. Talk of fresh elections dominated the news.

Making initial chit chat as we settled in the room, I asked had she anything to say on Liberman’s resignation. Opening a window behind me, she turns to me and laughs, albeit affectionately, at my question. It’s as if I had asked her something silly and gossipy. Sounding almost indifferent, she says “besides what everybody is saying, not really” she shakes her head, then adding “He wants to detach himself from, Hamas defeating Israel, he didn’t want the Israelis to consider himself to part of this failure”

 Avigdor Liberman and Hanin Zoabi have history. Liberman had previously called Zoabi a “terrorist” in the Knesset. He was subsequently reprimanded by the Knesset Ethics Committee for those comments.

She quickly moves on from Liberman. Now sitting down at the oversized conference table that awkwardly separates us, her hands on the table, she speaks softly, slowly moving the conversation onto the wider issue of Gaza.

‘Ironically with all the violence of the army, an army that has bombed Gaza with thousands of weapons, the military which committed crimes against humanity is more rational towards Gaza to understand there are is no military solution”

 The civilians in Israel are more detached are more aggressive don’t understand that Israel doesn’t fight against Hamas, they are fighting against the Palestinian people”

Offices of Hanin Zoabi (Offered a Turkish Coffee).jpeg

‘So, first question’, I say, immediately regretting what sounds like a tedious numbering of my questions – Do you prefer to identify as an Arab Israeli or Palestinian citizen of Israel, Israeli Palestinian or something else entirely? It is a question that I thought may irritate and am somewhat hesitant in asking but is a subject that nevertheless generates considerable debate in Israel.

She yells aloud, half mockingly, “Ah don’t ask it, we hate this question, because we are Palestinians, you define yourself as an Irish, not as an English, we are Palestinian of course we are Palestinians”

 In the mainstream media in Israel, even in the left wing Haaretz (Newspaper) Palestinians citizens of Israel who make up some 22% of the population and who are entitled to vote in the Knesset are almost always called “Israeli Arabs” as opposed to the stateless “Palestinians” living in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza.

 “It was part of the hidden violence of Israel to redefine our personality our identity our history, it’s the most calm psychological violence of Israel. My identity is a strategic threat to Israel. They consider us traitors as soon as we define ourselves as Palestinians”

I feel almost sheepish is asking why she thinks the Israeli left wing insist in using the phrase “Israeli-Arab” and not “Palestinian” for Palestinians like her who are citizens of Israel.

“Palestinians don’t differentiate between right and left we differentiate between Zionists and Anti-Zionists…The real leftwing is not Tzipi Livni [Knesset leader of the Zionist Union – alliance of the Labor Party] even sometimes not even Meretz [the small left wing progressive party] “If you don’t consider what happened in 1948 as ethnic cleansing, expelling 85% of the Palestinians, if you don’t define Zionist as a colonial project then you are not left wing”

I briefly outline the story of the proposed BDS (Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions). legislation moving through the Irish parliament, a proposal designed to specifically target Israeli settlements only, and ask her does she support the BDS of all of Israel.

Looking almost puzzled, she gives an emphatic, “Of course” And does that boycott, I ask support include third level universities, cultural institutes, academics? She raises her voice. “especially cultural academics, the boycott is crucial, the academics, the professors, the Israelis as long as they are silent you are bombing the children of Gaza”

She appears to have a particular distaste for those Israeli cultural elites who are not visibly vocal in their criticism of the occupation, almost mocking some imagined caricature of them.

“No I’m not a criminal, I teach” she mimics, then quickly berating the character she has momentarily invented, “your silence is the strongest support of the army…..no you are ugly….with your beautifying the face of Israel….good clothes, your classical music, your western profile…you are doing a service to this very ugly army”

Does the boycott I ask extend to Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinian academics, Palestinian artists, “if they don’t introduce themselves as Israelis but as Palestinians, yes” does it include herself? “yes, it includes me, if I go as a representative of the Knesset”.

I suggest to her that she has become an almost hate figure for many on the Israeli right. There have been at least two articles in the past two years in the Israeli media with that tagline – I ask does she think a lot of that abuse is related to the fact that she is a woman, a Palestinian woman.

Zoabi, tilts her shoulders back and is quick to answer “Yes, for sure..it’s part of the sexist remarks I get”she adopts an exaggerated voice of those her mock her, waving her hands dismissively “go to Hamas and find out what they will do with a 40 year old single woman, – I was 40 back then’ she humorously adds, before resuming to reenact the abuse – “no man will come close to you…something like that….no man will allow himself to touch you…”

Is all of this on social media, on the street I ask “No”, she says “in the Knesset, in the chamber with a microphone, it’s on record”

As a woman does, does she identify with or have any admiration at all for Tzipi Livni, [Labor leader inside the Knesset] or Tamar Zanberg [leader of small left-wing Meretz party) – or any other female Knesset member working in what is a very male chauvinist Israeli political environment?

Zoabi, guffaws at the suggestion, almost dismissing the idea as risible, “No, not at all, the definition of feminism in Israel is to be equal to men in oppressing the Palestinians. It is to be equal to have the right to bomb the Palestinians”

She becomes increasingly passionate, almost angry.

 “The Zionist feminist movement are not taking about freeing the Palestinians from chauvinism of the military, they are talking about to expand the chauvinist military to recruit the women…..it’s absurd…before declaring  Zionist feminism is anti-feminism”

The Me2Movement I say has been one of the most significant social and political stories of 2018, has it had any impact on politics, social discourse in Palestinian society? She is very quick to acknowledge it hadn’t. “No, it has bypassed Palestinian society here, I think it needs a lot of courage, it didn’t have an impact”.

 Zoabi is acknowledged as a tireless advocate for women’s rights, in particular vulnerable women, she has her fair share of admirers on the Israeli (Jewish) political left. But she appears somewhat deflated about her answer, softly adding With regard to killing women [A reference to so called “Honour Killings] violence towards women we are not a passive community we are not a silent community, I’m very critical of my society”

I move on.

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Photograph – Israeli Separation Barrier  (Paul Kearns)

Last year in Dallas, Zoabi gave a speech to the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, an American pro-Palestinian organization. It was widely reported in the mainstream Israeli media that her speech included a statement that the Jewish People are not a nationality and therefore have no right to self-determination. The speech generated a wave of hostility across Israel media.

I recount a little bit of the story and asked her could she elaborate on her talk.

She seems genuinely perplexed I should be even be asking this.

“Also, the Muslims are not a nation, also the Christians are not” She shrugs, gently scoffs.

 “Anti-Semitism is to treat the Jews in a different way, in a racist way…but from the other side, also to give privileges to the Jews is a kind of treating the Jews as a different way to others”

 “So, the Muslims are not a nation and they don’t deserve self-determination, Christians all over the world are not a nation, also the Jews, it’s a religion, for me self-determination is a political definition”

Zoabi’s flat out rejection of the suggestion that Jews have a right to define themselves collectively as a people, as a nation, a nationality is to be expected. She does however extend an olive branch, “Jews who came to my homeland, I can recognize them as Israelis, who have developed a special culture here, a special language, Hebrew culture”

She leans forward, “This is important” she declares, perhaps acutely aware that her refusal to countenance Jewish nationality – whilst not a particularly controversial viewpoint to many – remains an anathema to the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews.

“they deserve self-determination, group rights, cultural rights, national rights, religious rights equal to my Palestinian collectively rights the Israelis ignore this side of my talk”

Hanin Zoabi, Palestinian parliamentarian is tantalizing flirting with the language of Post-Zionism of the Israeli left here. Her acknowledgement, seemingly genuine appreciation of the depths and richness of the roots of Israeli culture, the Hebrew language is not as she says, something one reads often in Israeli media. She is acknowledged as a fluent Hebrew speaker.

“The Israelis, they always delete this part of my speech, Jews who are here, have a special Israeli identity, it’s an Israeli identity, so yes, I recognize them their self-determination here”

Her ire would appear to be reserved not for Israelis who are born and raised here, but for those Jews born abroad and who continue chose to exercise their right to come here today. “No other Jews have special right to come here, the right to come back is reserved for Palestinian refugees who were expelled”

 She becomes increasing passionate, and once again speaks about the Israelis in what feels like the second person singular, as if directing her anger, her accusations at me. It’s a little discomforting if oddly mesmerizing. I can’t help feeling a little privileged that I’m sitting here alone, with her, listening and watching.

 She gesticulates somewhat frantically, speaking ever louderWhy you come to me, you hate my Arabic language, if don’t want to hear my Arabic language……you”  before uncharacteristically stuttering,   “…you feel superior, you feel superior to the Arab culture and the Arab history, why you came as a European, go back to Europe, if you think the Europeans are superior to Arab culture” Her voice is now reaching a crescendo of a public rally “…go back, go back don’t feel superior”

I interrupt and point out that not all Israelis came from Europe, that up to half of the country are either 1st or 2nd generation, Moroccan, Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni or from other Arab or Muslim countries.

Zoabi is quick to acknowledge that “yeah half of them are from the Arab world, yeah” but somewhat side stepping the relevancy of this narrative, adding “the Likud [Party of Bibi Netanyahu] hasn’t changed the elite from an Ashkenazi European western elite”

I gently press her, and suggest some people may see this as a contradiction, just as she has, the right to identify as a Palestinian, doesn’t she think Jewish people have a right to identify as a nationality? Some” she says, presumably some Jews but not all. “Those who are here I accept that, but not all the Jews” she clarifies.

“I recognize them” she declares “not just some” as if slightly berating the timidity of her original answer. “Seven million” She declares almost defiantly, What else do they want…I must delete myself as a Palestinian, I must just delete myself as a human, my identity”

She abruptly changes tone. She moves closer, she draws me in – very calmly and very softly she says  “But what I don’t recognize” she pauses  “Paul? she asks, I silently nod – But what I don’t recognize is their privileges, they demand privileges, this is what they demand, they don’t demand equality, they don’t see us as human, they don’t believe we are human, we deserve nothing in their eyes. If you don’t accept this, you are a terrorist if your Palestinian or an anti-Semite if you are European” – Then silence.

A strange expectation fills the big room. It’s seems appropriate to completely shift the conservation, an opportunity to try to get her to talk about the person behind the politician. I ask her, who has most influenced her in her personal life, in arriving at the person, the woman, she is now?

She pauses, looks into distant space, seems a little reluctant to share her thoughts before replying, “I didn’t plan in any part of my life and period of my life to get into Knesset….it was not part of my ambition, for me it’s to be passive or not, to influence my reality or not”

 She begins to talk about her mother and father. “I wasn’t raised to be a Palestinian. My parents didn’t raise me to be proud of my Palestinian identity, not at all”

They raised me to be a self-confident woman, not to let anyone hurt me as a woman to have self-pride, and self-confidence, that’s it…from this to a be active as a Palestinian the distance, is so, so short”

She says she didn’t begin to first think about injustices between, Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, “I started to compare between women and men in my society, between my mother” she pauses, before adding hesitantly “and my father”

 “Why do women are cooking all the time, and men are sitting, why, this is a question I was asking since three years old, why my father is driving a car and not my mother, why”

 Her political consciousness, she said was first awoken at the age of 12 watching the television story of the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camps in Beirut in 1982. “Who is this in Sabra and Shatila” she suddenly says, as if once again, acting out a character, in this case herself, in her own dramatization of past events.  She switches tone, calming adding “I was 12 years old, in sixth grade” She resumes the dramatic vocal intonation – “Who are they, and my mother she says these are the Palestinians, and I said who are Palestinians, nobody told me I was a Palestinian in primary school, just in secondary school”

 She concludes the story by saying that her “mother belonged to a generation in the 1960s and 1970s which defining ourselves as Palestinian was not so taken for granted as now”

Zoabi herself is a 2nd generation family member to have entered the Knesset. She comes from a prominent Muslim Palestinian family. She is a relative of Seif el-Din el-Zoubi, a former mayor of Nazareth and member of the Knesset in the 1950s and Abd el-Aziz el-Zoubi, a Deputy Health Minister and the first Arab member of an Israeli government.

Asked as to her personal preference for a two state or single state solution, Zoabi said she had “no preference” as long as both were “democratic, normal with full collective rights”. And in the event of two democratic states sitting side by side could she envisage some Israeli settlers being allowed to stay in their homes, Zoabi is adamant “no, no, no, no, no” she waves her hand repeatedly “these are war crimes, settlements are war crimes”

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Photograph – Maale Adumim Settlement West Bank (Paul Kearns)

There are some 700,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 1972 one in 300 Israelis were settlers, today one in thirteen Israeli Jews are now settlers.  In the event of a future peace deal the consensus is that some of the larger settlement blocks, some just a few hundred metres east of the Green Line will be incorporated into Israel.

 I ask again, slightly rephrasing the question, even in the event of a comprehensive peace agreement would she not accept some settlers being permitted to stay in their homes but inside a Palestinian State – she insists “no, even after that [peace agreement] they can have individual immigration, and the laws of the Palestinian accepts them as immigrants”.

I can’t resist asking for her personal thoughts of Bibi Netanyahu. Does she think the Israeli Prime Minister is an ideologue, an opportunist, a conviction politician? – How does she read his motivations?

She sighs, takes a deep breath – as if to instinctively distant herself. She refers him in the third person/abstract

“I don’t underestimate this person”.

 “He is not just an opportunist, he has a well-defined strategy ideology and a well-defined path to redefine Israel”

 “Before Netanyahu”, she says “Israel was a racist state, now Israel has become under his leadership, has become semi fascist state” – “Now we are talking about another Israel, Israel has now a different elite from a Zionist liberal elite to extremist rightwing elite – Now the [retention of the] settlements and the West Bank are part of the consensus”

We come full circle to Avigdor Liberman “Liberman in 2003, he embarrassed the Knesset when he talked of transfer [of Palestinians citizens of Israel to the West Bank], he embarrassed them, by 2009 Liberman is a Minister [of Foreign affairs]”. Liberman has become an almost cartoonish and buffoonish villain for the Israeli left. He once called for the bombing of the Aswan Dam in Egypt.

“Before 2004, before Netanyahu, the occupation was a burden. There still is an occupation, but the occupation stopped being a burden, it’s so easy now. Because of the [Gaza] siege, the [Israeli separation] wall, the Palestinians disappeared, the occupation disappeared. Now a new generation of Israelis don’t know there is an occupation”

Zoabi’s assertion about a disappearing or invisible occupation is increasingly evident in Israel. Its subtle and multifaceted and almost unfathomable to understand for foreigners who have never set foot in Israel to appreciate. From the peculiarities of road signage to weather forecasting maps, the occupation is effectively being erased in the popular consciousness. A recent study found that 60% of 18 to 29-year-old Israelis believed that Israel had already annexed the entire West Bank.

“In the election campaign of 2009, 2013, 2015, you didn’t see any mention in the campaign what to do with the West Bank, it was just the problems of the middle class, housing, the Palestinians disappeared”

 “Israel has managed psychologically to delete us from the minds of Israelis, and this is because the occupation has become easy, without a price, and when you don’t pay any price for your oppression, you will not consider your oppression”

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Photograph – Israeli Separation Barrier Palestinian city of Qalkiliya West Bank  (Paul Kearns)

Is she disappointed by Europe’s failure to exert meaningful pressure on Israel to end the occupation? She answers in a heavy, resigned tone.

 “Not disappointed, it’s not disappointment” there is a very long pause “I don’t take it so seriously the western values of justice and democracy, they are hypocrites, not the people, the grassroots, I’m talking about the diplomats, even some of the journalists”

 “Maybe we should liberate the Europeans first before liberating the Palestinians from the pressure of the Zionist lobby, Israel is now dangerous to the Europeans. Europe is captured and oppressed by the Zionist lobby”

But she has hope, the young people are more and more liberated from this sin of the Holocaust, the Nazis, more detached from Hitler, more rational”

And the Arab world I ask? She expects even less. “The Palestinian Authority has become a tool of the occupation, Arab regimes and dictatorships who kill their people, oppress their people, put them in jail in Egypt and Syria. Sisi [President of Egypt] Bin Salman [The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia] and Bashar Assad are criminals, but the hypocrisy of the Europeans to deal with Sisi, Bin Salman…. this is not disappointing…this is disgusting….disgusting”

And the future? Her voice becomes more subdued, even a little deflated. Perhaps after almost an hour of questions and answers its somewhat inevitable.

She returns to the plight of the people of Gaza.

“As Palestinians, when we look at Gaza, we feel so shameful, shameful, they have suffered eleven years of a siege, with destruction of a society, and you see their willingness to fight”

 Her voice crackles with emotion, her eyes almost tearful.

“We must not ask peoples to be heroes, humans are humans, they are not supposed to be heroes”

She abruptly changes tone, and almost defiantly, as if rallying activists “We should reunify ourselves as a people, we should get rid of the Palestinian Authority and redefine our leadership” before concluding somewhat wistfully, Remember the power of Israel has it limits, the power of the military has its limits, and the limits of Israel is the will of the people who want their liberty, nothing more”

 Finally, has she a message for the Irish people?

Her eyes brighten, her face lightens again, she giggles, almost bashfully.

“First of all, I always feel empowered when I meet Irish people”, she smiles in a charmingly disarming way.

“I don’t know why, maybe this is a romantic idea of the Irish people, but it’s not just romantic, it’s what I saw in Ireland, in Dublin and Belfast, when I entered the bars with flags and Palestinian flags, when I speak to people, they understand me they understand our emotions they understand our anger”.

 I thank her. We shake hands. She stands up. Packing away my notes, I casually ask her has decided to run for the Knesset again. Catching me off guard, she answers, a surprising “No”

 Has she announced that – I ask?

“No”, she laughs, “Nobody really knows”

I ask why she is not standing again for election.

“I have had enough… enough of the Knesset”

 I thank her again, she softly says “Thank you Paul.

I ask for a photo, she laughs A Selfie?”

The "Selfie" Hanin Zoabi.jpg

Photograph – Paul Kearns and Hanin Zoabi  

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