It is not easy to be an Arab in Israel.
It is not easy to be a woman in Arab society.
It is not easy to be an Arab in Israeli politics.
And even less easy to be an Arab woman in the Knesset.
Haneen Zuabi is all these together. Perhaps because of this she wears a perpetual smile – the smile of somebody who has won, after all.
It can be very annoying, this smile. Annoying and provocative.
These days, Zuabi has achieved something no Arab woman in Israel ever dreamed of: the whole country is talking about her. Not for an hour, nor for a day, but for weeks on end.
The vast majority of Jewish Israelis hate her guts. Zuabi’s smile is triumphant.
Haneen belongs to a large Hamula (extended family) that dominates several villages near Nazareth. Two Zuabis were members of the Knesset in its early days – one was a vassal of the (then) ruling Zionist Labor Party, the other a member of the left-wing Zionist Mapam party. It was he who coined the memorable phrase: "My country is at war with my people!"
Haneen Zuabi is a member of the Balad ("homeland") party, an Arab nationalist party founded by Azmi Bishara, an Israeli-Palestinian intellectual. Bishara was an admirer of Gamal Abd-al-Nasser and his pan-Arab vision. When the Shin-Bet was about to arrest him on some pretext or other, he fled the country, asserting that because of a severe kidney disease, prison would endanger his life.
He left behind a three-man Knesset faction, one of three Arab factions of similar size. All of them were a constant irritation to their Jewish colleagues, so they invented a remedy. A new law was enacted denying Knesset membership to any party that did not gain enough votes for a four-member faction. (A larger minimum could have endangered the Orthodox Jewish party.)
The logic was simple: the three small Arab factions hated each other’s guts. One was Communist (with one Jewish member), one Islamist and one nationalist (Balad).
But lo and behold, under threat of annihilation even Arabs can unite. They formed a "Joint List" ("Joint", not "United") and together gained 13 seats – three more than before. They are now the third largest faction in the Knesset, right after Likud and Labor, an eyesore to many of their colleagues.
This is the background of the latest outrage.
For months now, Israel has been in the throes of a mini-intifada. In the two former intifadas, "terrorists" acted in groups under the orders of organizations, which were easily infiltrated. This time, individuals act alone, or together with cousins who could be trusted, without any prior signs. The Israeli forces (army, police, Shin Bet) have no information whatsoever and are therefore unable to prevent these acts.
Moreover, many of today’s "terrorists" are children – boys and girls who just pick up a knife in their mother’s kitchen and, on the spur of the moment, run out and attack the nearest Israeli. Some of them are 13, 14 years old. Some of the girls wield scissors. All of them know that in all probability they will be shot dead on the spot by soldiers or passing armed civilians.
The preferred victims are soldiers or settlers. Lacking these, they attack any Israeli, man or woman, in sight.
The mighty Israeli security forces are admittedly helpless against this kind of "infantifada" (as my friend Reuven Wimmer calls it). In their distress, the security forces do what they always do in such situations: use methods that have already failed many times.
Apart from summary executions on the spot (justified or unjustified, these methods include the demolition of the family’s home, to deter others, as well as the arrest of parents and other family members.
Frankly, I detest these measures. They remind me of a Nazi term I remember from my youth: "Sippenhaft" ("kin liability”. It is barbaric. It is also highly ineffective. A boy who has decided to sacrifice his life for his people is not deterred by such things. Not a single piece of contrary evidence has ever been produced. On the contrary, it stands to reason that such barbaric acts increase hatred and provide motivation for more attacks.
But the most atrocious and stupid measure is the withholding of dead bodies. I am almost too ashamed to bring this up.
After almost any "terrorist" act, the body of the perpetrator – adult or child – is picked up by the security forces. Under Muslim law and usage, dead bodies must be buried the same day or the next one. Withholding them is a supreme act of cruelty. Our security services believe that this contributes to prevention. For Muslims, this is a supreme act of sacrilege.
This is the background of the latest scandal. The three Balad members of the Arab faction visited the families of the perpetrators of a "terrorist outrage", whose bodies had been withheld. Their version is that they came to discuss how to retrieve the bodies. The security forces insist that they also expressed their condolences and even stood in silence for a minute.
The Knesset, "from wall to wall", was outraged. How dare they? Extolling murderers? Showing sympathy for their families?
The Balad members of the Joint Faction are, apart from Zuabi and her smile, Bassal Gatas, and Gamal Zahalka. I have never met Gatas personally. He is 60 years old, a Christian Arab, a doctor of engineering and a businessman. He was for a long time a member of the Communist Party but was thrown out when he insisted on his right to criticize the Soviet Union. Azmi Bishara is his cousin. On TV, he makes a very sensible impression.
I consider Gamal Zahalka a personal friend. Once we both attended a conference in Italy and undertook some hikes together with our wives. I like him very much.
The three Balad members were banned from the Knesset for several months, except for the right to participate in Knesset votes (a right that cannot be denied). Now a new bill proposes that the Knesset can, by a majority of three fourths, expel members from the Knesset altogether.
This means that – unless the Supreme Court declares this bill unconstitutional – the Knesset will soon be Araber-rein, free from Arabs. A purely Jewish Knesset for a purely Jewish state.
This would be a disaster for Israel.
Every fifth Israeli is an Arab. The Arab minority in Israel is one of the largest national minorities, per capita, in the world. Pushing such a minority out of the political process will weaken the very structure of the state.
When the state came into being, we believed that after a generation or two the gulf between the two communities would close, or nearly so. The opposite has happened.
In the early years, political cooperation between Jews and Arabs in a joint peace-camp was strong and getting stronger. These days are long past. The gulf has widened.
There was – and is – an opposite trend, too. Many Arabs are integrated in important professions, such as medicine. The last time I was hospitalized, I could not guess if the chief doctor of my department was Jewish or Arab. I had to ask my (Arab) male nurse, who confirmed that the very gentle doctor was Arab. I have found that Arab medical personnel are generally gentler than Jewish ones.
In several professions, Arabs are more or less integrated. But the general trend is the opposite. Where once there were cordial relations between neighborhoods, or between political organizations, contacts have loosened or disappeared altogether.
There were times when my friends and I visited Arab towns and villages almost every week. Not anymore.
This is not altogether an one-sided process. Insulted and rejected for so long, Arab citizens have lost the appetite for cooperation. Some of them have become more Islamist. The happenings in the Occupied Territories affect them deeply. A third and fourth generation of Israeli Arab citizens is becoming more proud and self-reliant. They are very disappointed by the failures of the Jewish peace movements.
To throw the Arab members out of the Knesset is, as a French politician once famously said, "This is worse than a crime – it is a mistake!"
It would cut the ties between the Israeli state and more than 20% of its citizens. Some Israelis may dream of evicting the Arabs altogether from the historical country – all six million of them in Israel proper, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – but that is a pipedream. The world in which this was once possible does not exist any more.
What is possible, and indeed already exists, is a creeping apartheid. It is already the reality in the West bank and East Jerusalem, and – as this episode shows – it is becoming the reality in Israel proper, too.
The hysteria that has engulfed the country after the "visit to the ‘terrorists’ families" has touched the Labor party, and even Meretz, too.
I am putting "terrorists" in quotation marks because they are terrorists only to the Jews. For Arabs they are heroes, shaheeds, Muslims who sacrifice their lives to "testify" to the greatness of Allah.
The question is, of course, what is the job of an Arab MK? To upset the Jews? Or to narrow the gap and convince Israelis that Israeli-Palestinian peace is both possible and worthwhile.
I am afraid that Zuabi’s smile does not help with the second aim.
If anything, this affair has reinforced the arguments for the Two State. Let each of the two states have a parliament of its own, where they can commit all the stupidities they want, and a serious joint Coordination Council, where serious decisions can be taken.