Balad candidate may be first Arab party woman MK

'A woman represents the struggle of Arab society just as the man represents it.'

elections2009_248 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Haneen Zoubi of Nazareth could well become the first Arab-Israeli woman to serve in the Knesset as a representative of an Arab party. Zoubi is number three on Balad's list and recent polls have said that the Arab nationalist party will earn three seats in Tuesday's general elections, as it did in 2006. The prospect of her election is something the 39-year-old Zoubi says she does not take lightly. "I don't believe that a woman should only represent women's issues," she told The Jerusalem Post on Monday in a telephone interview. "A woman represents the struggle of Arab society just as the Arab man represents it, the struggle against the racist politics or regime in Israel, against the distortion of the Arab identity, the confiscation of a person's Palestinian identity and the land of the Palestinian people, and the rights of the Palestinian people inside Israel." Another Arab-Israeli woman, Asma'a Agbariya-Zahalka, is leading a small Arab-Jewish party called Da'am. However, as in previous elections, the party is not expected to cross the threshold necessary for entering the Knesset. The only Arab-Israeli woman currently serving in parliament, Labor's Nadia Hilou, is almost certain to be leaving. She holds her party's 30th spot and, according to polls, lacks a realistic chance of retaining her seat. Hilou said she would have placed 14th - and therefore likely enter the Knesset - had it not been for Labor's quota policy, which reserves certain spots for districts and sectors. She said she chose to run on Labor's national list because she wanted to be elected on her own merits rather than vie for a seat reserved for Arabs. Hilou told the Post on Sunday that her rank "had nothing to do" with her legislative performance in the outgoing Knesset. "One of the factors was the budget and the amount of money that flowed from other candidates and deals that were made that pushed me aside," she said. Only two Arab-Israeli women - Hilou and Hussniya Jabara of Meretz - have served in the Knesset as members of Zionist-Jewish parties. Jabara was the first, serving from 1999 to 2003. Zoubi served as the director of the Nazareth-based I'lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel for five years before resigning two months ago to focus on her political career. She said that as a member of Balad, she was struggling not only to establish a democratic regime in Israel, but to achieve rights for women in Arab society. "The opportunities for political mobilization for Palestinians, in a general way, both for women and men, are few," she said. "We don't have a state, we don't have state institutions or [our own] parliament.... We live in a state that recognizes itself as a state of the Jews." In addition, Zoubi said, due to the community's social values, it is more difficult for an Arab woman in Israel to reach a position of authority or decision-making than it is for an Arab man. If elected, she said she would work to raise the employment rate of Arab women in Israel. "The most important factor for modernization and self-autonomy of the Palestinian woman is her economic autonomy," she said. Less than 19 percent of Arab-Israeli women participate in the labor force, while the rate is 54% for all Israeli women, according to the Herzliya-based Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development. Concerning Israel's recent military operation in Gaza, Zoubi said that the conflict is not between Israel and Hamas, but between Israel and the Palestinian people. "The Israeli war is against the Palestinian struggle, against their freedom and their sovereignty; it is a war against the Palestinian struggle to end the occupation and to end the siege on Gaza," she said. She added that since Hamas had been chosen democratically by the Palestinian people in the 2006 legislative elections, the Islamist movement represented the will of the Palestinian people and "by fighting Hamas, Israel is fighting the will of the Palestinian people." While she is "against killing civilians," Zoubi believes it is legitimate for an occupied people to fight against occupation. "Occupation is occupation," she said. "According to international law, the settlements and the army are illegitimate." Experts say that Zoubi's candidacy in a realistic spot opens the door for the integration of Arab women at the national political level. "There is the will. There are trends. We see in the field that Arab women are waking up to the fact that they are half of the power of the population, as in any society," said Ephraim Lavie, acting director of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish Arab Cooperation. "Until now, they haven't had significant expression in the political realm." Lavie said that choosing to reserve its third slot for a woman connects to Balad's philosophy of being democratic and general, rather than sectarian, in nature. The party is seeking to represent both men and women from various communities and backgrounds who share its ideology, he said.