The only three Arab parties represented in the Israeli parliament vowed yesterday to fight a decision by the Central Elections Committee to bar them from running in next month’s general election.
In an unprecedented move signaling a further breakdown in Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel, all the main Jewish parties voted on Monday for the blanket disqualification. Several committee members equated the Arab parties’ vocal support for the Gazan people with support for terrorism.
The decision follows the arrest of at least 600 Arab demonstrators since the outbreak of the Gaza offensive and the interrogation by the secret police of dozens of Arab community leaders. The three parties the National Democratic Assembly, the United Arab List and the Renewal Movement have seven legislators out of a total of 120 in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The elections committee barred all three from putting up candidates for the Feb 10 election on the grounds that they had violated a 2002 law by refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and by supporting a terrorist organization.
Ahmed Tibi, the leader of Renewal, denounced the decision as “a political trial led by a group of fascists and racists who are willing to see the Knesset without Arabs and want to see the country without Arabs.”
A petition against the disqualification will be heard by a panel of Supreme Court justices this week.
Hassan Jabareen, the director of the Adalah legal rights group, which represents the Arab parties, noted that the disqualification motion had been introduced by far right-wing parties.
Such parties include Yisrael Beiteinu, which campaigns for the country’s 1.2 million-strong Arab minority to be stripped of citizenship.
“It is absurd that the committee is backing a motion from racist parties in the Knesset to exclude the Arab parties whose platform is that Israel must be made into a proper democracy treating all its citizens equally.”
The elections committee is composed of representatives from all the major parties. Although it has voted for disqualification of Arab candidates before, it is the first time both that the left-wing Labor Party has backed such a motion and that all the Arab parties have been included in the ban.
Mr Jabareen accused the right-wing parties of exploiting the war atmosphere. Labor’s secretary general, Eitan Cabel, called his party’s conduct in voting for the disqualification “patriotic.”
All the Arab parties have harshly criticized the attack on Gaza. This week Mr Tibi described Israeli actions as “genocide”, while Ibrahim Sarsour, of the United Arab List, said Israel was seeking to “eliminate the Palestinian cause.”
In the past, Arab Knesset members have also upset their Jewish colleagues by traveling to neighboring Arab states, defying a change in the law to prevent such visits.
Following the vote on the ban, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, suggested his party had additional goals: “The next battle is making [the National Democratic Assembly] illegal because it is a terrorist organization whose objective is harming the state of Israel.”
Mr Lieberman and other legislators have been hounding the NDA for years, chiefly because it is led by Azmi Bishara, an outspoken proponent of equal rights for Arab citizens. Israeli secret police forced Mr Bishara into exile two years ago, accusing him of treason after the 2006 Lebanon war.
During the 2003 election, when the committee barred the NDA and Mr Tibi from running, the decision was overturned by a majority of the Supreme Court. But few of the justices from that hearing are still on the bench.
“There are reasons to be fearful,” Mr Jabareen said. “The Supreme Court is also susceptible to the current war atmosphere and its authority has been greatly eroded over the past year. It has been forced on to the defensive over claims from the Right that its decisions support the Left.”
If the ban is upheld, some Arab representation in the Knesset is likely to continue. The joint Arab and Jewish Communist Party is allowed to stand, and the three major Jewish parties include one or two Arab candidates on their lists, though not always in electable positions.
Meanwhile, Israeli police admitted they arrested about 600 people involved in protests against the Gaza offensive, some of them for stone-throwing. Adalah lawyers said more than 200 people, most of them Arab, were still in jail.
“We’re talking about mass arrests,” said Abeer Baker, adding that Israel was exploiting a 30-day window before an indictment had to be filed to hold suspects without producing evidence.
In addition, the Shin Bet, Israel’s secretive domestic security service, has called in dozens of Arab leaders for interrogation. Ameer Makhoul, head of the Ittijah organization, which promotes Arab causes in Israel, was detained last week. He said a security official who interrogated him threatened to jail him over demonstrations he helped to organize in support of Gaza.
“The officer called me a rebel threatening the security of the state during time of war and said he would be happy to transfer me to Gaza,” Mr Makhoul said.
Haaretz, a leftist Israeli daily newspaper, has called the interrogations “intimidation tactics to prevent legitimate protest.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.