MK Haneen Zoabi will be banned from all parliamentary activity except voting for the next six months, following a Knesset Ethics Committee ruling Tuesday on complaints of incitement by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and other lawmakers.
Zoabi’s punishment, the maximum the committee can give, will take effect on Wednesday, the last day of voting before the Knesset goes on recess until October, at which point she will not be able to make speeches, submit parliamentary questions or initiate debates in committees or the plenum.
Also on Tuesday, a Knesset Channel poll found that 89 percent of Jewish Israelis think Zoabi’s citizenship should be revoked, while 10% oppose such a move.
The Balad MK has a long history of controversial activity in and out of the Knesset, including participation in the 2010 Gaza flotilla on the infamous Mavi Marmara, which was stopped by IDF commandos.
In 2011, the Ethics Committee banned her from the Knesset for two months after she physically attacked an usher who tried to remove her from the plenum for incessantly interrupting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had referred to her in his speech.
The committee received many complaints about Zoabi in recent weeks regarding her statement that the June kidnapping of Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Fraenkel and Gil-Ad Shaer, later found slain, was not terrorism – something Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein decided was not criminal incitement – and her support for Hamas rocket attacks on Israel during Operation Protective Edge.
In his complaint, Edelstein told the panel that many citizens had appealed to him to take action against Zoabi because of “her statements bordering on incitement, encouraging violence and supporting terrorism.”
The Knesset speaker specifically mentioned an article Zoabi published on a Hamas website in which she encouraged Palestinians to take part in “popular resistance” and called to “put Israel under siege instead of negotiating.”
He also quoted Zoabi’s statements in a radio interview following the kidnapping of the three teenagers: “[The kidnappers] are not terrorists.
They have to use these means until Israel will wake up a little, until the citizens of Israel and Israeli society will wake up and feel the suffering of the other.”
Finally, Edelstein sent the committee a video in which Zoabi displays aggressive behavior toward police officers during a recent demonstration in Haifa against IDF activities.
“I know the committee consistently defends freedom of expression for MKs in general and specifically for those who represent minorities, and as Knesset speaker I think this is the right and appropriate policy,” Edelstein wrote. “Still, I think that MK Zoabi crossed the line long ago when it comes to appropriate behavior for a lawmaker.”
The speaker continued: “The many complaints I received show this is not a ‘usual’ case of harsh or outrageous statements that happen from time to time in the Knesset, but continued provocative behavior that erodes the Knesset’s status. That is why I think the Ethics Committee should use its authority in a way that will send a message to MK Zoabi and the wider public that although freedom of political expression is a basic right, they cannot support terrorist organizations and encourage acts of terrorism.”
The committee noted in its decision that when Weinstein said Zoabi’s comments on the teens’ kidnapping were not criminal, he added that they could be unethical as they were “especially harsh at the time they were said because, although she expressed reservations about the action of kidnapping, they could be understood as understanding [of] and identification with it.”
Zoabi responded to the panel that the complaints it received were spiteful and exemplified the “reigning culture of racism and the need to rule over the other and suppress the other’s political opinions.”
The Balad MK also said it had ignored the context of her comments about the three teens.
“It is too bad that the Knesset speaker used a partial quote,” she wrote. “In any case, I admit that my political and parliamentary activity, like my declarations and opinions, represent political opinions and values that completely contradict those reflected in the complaints. I represent a vision of justice, freedom, equality and an uncompromising battle against racism, oppression, discrimination, dispossession and disenfranchisement.... I will not give in to those who are trying to silence me, punish me and take revenge on me.”
The Ethics Committee wrote that it seeks to avoid limiting freedom of political expression by MKs even when their statements are outrageous, and that expressions of harsh criticism in times of war must be allowed. However, there is a difference between legitimate criticism and encouraging Israel’s enemies and legitimizing terrorism against Israeli citizens.
“The public in Israel, like in any country, expects that the members of its parliament, who declare allegiance to the state, will not encourage those who attack it and want to kill its soldiers and citizens,” the committee decision said. “Criticism of the government [by an MK], harsh as it may be, should be made from the point of view of someone who wants the good of the country and its citizens and wants to influence policy.”
As such, it decided that Zoabi’s comments and their timing were not legitimate and showed she identified with enemies of Israel, and that the article she wrote could only be understood as calling to harm the State of Israel, its security and its basic interests.
Her words violated her pledge as an MK and hurt the Knesset and its image, and as such, the ruling said, the ethics panel gave her the harshest punishment, a six-month ban from all parliamentary activity except for voting.
Many MKs reacted positively to Zoabi’s punishment, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), who said: “It is not enough to suspend Zoabi from Knesset debates for six months – she should be sent away from Israel to Qatar, and join the traitor from her party who already ran there, Azmi Bishara.”
Bishara, another Arab MK, fled Israel and resigned from the Knesset in 2007 when he was being investigated for ties with an enemy country. Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) said Zoabi should not even be a citizen of Israel.
“The Knesset did something symbolic today, but as long as she continues to get a salary from Israel and be an MK, the fiasco continues. The right thing to do is have her dismissed from the Knesset,” Hotovely stated.
Knesset Interior Committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud) said: “There is no doubt Zoabi will go underground together with Hamas leaders, and I will succeed in getting her [parliamentary] immunity revoked.
Zoabi’s removal from the Knesset is closer than ever. There is no room for traitors in the Knesset.”
MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), who chairs the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women – and got into a shouting match with Zoabi over her statements about the kidnapped teens – said the six-month suspension was not enough and that a Hamas representative should not be in the Knesset.
“Zoabi consistently supports our enemies and harms Israeli security,” Lavie said. “MK Zoabi’s behavior raises a serious suspicion that she crossed a clear red line at which point she can no longer be an MK.”
MK Esawi Frej (Meretz), however, said the decision was disproportionate and unreasonable and proved that Jewish and Arab MKs were treated differently.
“The Ethics Committee is quick to punish MK Zoabi but not MKs and ministers who incite against and call to boycott Arabs [MKs and ministers], who get a weak censure,” Frej said. “Freedom of speech is a right that cannot be violated, except in the most extreme cases, especially when it’s an MK.”