Haneen Zoabi on leaving Israeli politics after an intense decade of hate

Israel’s first female Palestinian politician speaks about the next election and why she is not running

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - FEBRUARY 17: Arab member of Israel's Knesset Haneen Zoabi (C) speaks to the press after the court decision about Israels ban of Arab lawmaker Zoabi from election in Jerusalem on February 14, 2015. (Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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“I know it’s difficult to be indifferent towards me," says Haneen Zoabi, who in 2009 became Israel’s first female Palestinian member of the Knesset.

"Either you will like me or you will hate me. I don’t care if every Israeli hates me.”

For most politicians, such widespread disapproval would be a testament to extraordinary failure as an elected representative. To Ms Zoabi, it is an accolade.

Having served for 10 years for her political party, Balad, she announced this year that she would not run in Israel's general election on April 9.

Balad is one of the main Palestinian parties that Israel has repeatedly tried to disqualify.

Many Jewish Israeli members have been ecstatic, seeing Ms Zoabi’s departure almost as an exorcism of the Knesset.

Ever since her election, her Jewish colleagues have sought to silence and expel her from the Knesset and Israel, and she has been routinely vilified by the media.

"It's been a very intense 10 years," Ms Zoabi says.

On top of her high profile political activities, she has campaigned diligently to advance other issues, “such as the raising the number of working Palestinian women, education matters, as well as violence and crime within Palestinian communities".

Change of tack

If anyone thought that she was stepping back in any way from her political activism, they would be wrong.

Ms Zoabi is planning to move from frontline politics to take up a residency or visiting fellowship programme in Britain, Europe or the US.

“I will continue to be very much involved in Balad, of course. But I want to reflect upon a very intense and deep, political experience. Over the past decade I was very involved and feel now I need to stop, sit and really absorb and reflect on it all.

“I want to use my experience to develop a theoretical strategy, to rethink our political struggle as Palestinian citizens, and to meet and learn from others who face or have faced similar liberation struggles.”


That struggle and goal are clear: to end the occupation and siege of Gaza, to ensure the right of return, and to view the fight within Israel as part of the whole Palestinian liberation struggle.

Ms Zoabi says the Green Line is an artificial tool used by Israel to separate “Israel as a normal state” from its occupation as an “abnormal situation” when the issue of colonisation must include all of Palestine.

“It is a Green Line with different shades between different systems of control,” she says.

“It is our struggle to decolonise the system and decolonise Israeli citizens, to say to them, ‘Stay, but not as colonialists or with this colonialist ideology’.

"It’s not just to give justice to our people, to give them their homeland and their rights and sovereignty, but also the chance to decolonise the Israelis.”

Her party’s approach seems reasonable, and a win-win outcome for all – although Israel considers it a “strategic threat”, Ms Zoabi says.

“I am one of the indigenous people here," she says. "It is absurd that here in Israel the struggle for democracy is considered a strategic threat.

"We’ve confronted Israel’s colonialism with a massive historical compromise, which is our demand for a state for all of its citizens, with the fundamental right of return.

“To these colonialists who expelled my people and instigated a campaign of ethnic cleansing in 1948, I am just saying: "OK, please now just live with me.

"This is our most important message to the world: how we confront this privilege, this colonialism, this apartheid, is with a democratic vision of a state for all of its citizens.”

But Ms Zoabi says it is not ordinary Israeli citizens that are the problem.

"I don't think Israelis are exceptions as human beings and that they don't want to live in a normal, democratic state – no. It is the system and the Zionist ideology that reinvents and reinforces their hatred and racism.

"But if you took them out of this Zionist machine and asked them: ‘Do you want to live within a normal state?’ they would say, ‘Why not?’

"The establishment has realised the strategic threat to this very simple, very human and very logical vision of a state for all its citizens. Because of that they have needed to demonise me and Balad.”

Shock doctrine

Cosseted by the Trump and previous US administrations, Israeli society has inched closer to the far-right of the political spectrum.

It has passed increasingly anti-democratic legislation aimed at silencing its critics and strengthening the rights of its Jewish citizens over its non-Jewish residents in recent years.

For the Palestinian minority inside Israel, which comprises a fifth of the Israeli population of almost nine million, life is getting worse as Israel’s second-class (or, according to many, third-class) citizens.

Reflecting on what has made her proudest over the past decade, she says it was her participation on the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships that tried to break Israel's siege of Gaza in 2010, and the speech she made after Israel's deadly attack on the human rights activists on the ship, nine of whom were killed.

She was the only member of parliament who was involved.

“I realised then how we really need to shake Israeli public opinion because you cannot build a dialogue with a society that is so blocked psychologically and politically," Ms Zoabi says.

"They have put themselves psychologically and rationally inside a ghetto. We really need to shock them in an intense way, repeatedly.

“People might say I tried this strategy for 10 years and didn’t succeed. My reply is that I didn’t succeed because this model was not adopted by all the Palestinian members.

"As long as it continues as an individual behaviour and not collective behaviour, and as long as Israel can differentiate between Haneen and others, saying, Haneen and Balad members are the bad Arabs and the others are good’ – and as long as we give them the possibility of picking ‘good Arabs’ among us – we will not succeed.”

Hanin Zoabi, a member of Knesset for the Arab Israeli party Balad, caused controversy in November 2015 by comparing discriminatory Israeli policies to those of the Nazis against Jews. AFP
Hanin Zoabi, a member of Knesset for the Arab Israeli party Balad, caused controversy in November 2015 by comparing discriminatory Israeli policies to those of the Nazis against Jews. AFP

This leads Ms Zoabi to the issue of boycotting the Knesset – an optional and politically strategic tool that she believes Balad and other Arab parties inside Israel need to discuss and reach a consensus on.

“What kind of political struggle and political behaviour are we promoting inside parliament? Are we presenting a challenging model, a really shocking model to influence Israeli public opinion, or you are behaving as if you are a normal, left-wing opposition,” she says.

“In the parliament you cannot behave as part of the Israeli opposition – you are still part of the Palestinian movement, of the Palestinian struggle. This question of what kind of performance we should promote within the Knesset is much more important, in my opinion, than whether to boycott or not to boycott.”

Inner strength

What many outside of Israeli society admire about Ms Zoabi is her passion. But where does this come from?

She laughs and replies: “I don’t know. It’s me! I’m just passionate in everything, not just politics. It’s my personality.”

She then turns the question on its head and says, “I always ask myself: why are people so cold and calm? This for me is abnormal. How can you be indifferent to the reality and just ignore injustice? How can people ignore their own humiliation or the humiliation of others? How can they be passive? How can they accept reality as it is? This for me is something I can’t understand.”

Despite a seemingly worsening situation inside Israel and its treatment of Palestinians inside Israel and under occupation, Ms Zoabi acknowledges: “Hope is not really part of the game. Resistance and resilience liberate you and this is the power of struggle. And this is what gives you hope. You resist and this resistance and resilience liberate you. This gives you strength and this is enough because you feel your dignity and some control about your life.”

Ms Zoabi has spent the last 10 years using words and ideas to severely rattle a country that is militarily very powerful, and which has the staunch support of the US and the EU. She is leaving life as a parliamentarian but sees herself primarily as a political leader, and sends a message to her people and Israel:

“As an individual I won’t be in the Knesset but my voice, which is my party’s voice and vision, will still continue to raise the same debates, incitement and arguments. You can kill the messenger, but the message will continue to be represented.”