For Arab MPs, Israeli parliament ‘harder than ever’
Jerusalem - It has never been easy being a lawmaker who identifies as Palestinian in the Israeli parliament but now it is harder than ever, Arab Israeli MPs say.
In recent months they have seen their colleagues discuss banning the early morning Muslim call to prayer and vote to legalise the seizure of hundreds of hectares of Palestinian land in the West Bank by Jewish settlers.
They have faced criticism and threats from fellow members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, some of whom refuse to even speak to them.
Ahmed Tibi, a lawmaker in his fifth term, said the situation in parliament was at its worst since he was first elected in 1999, with tensions whipped up by a “right-wing extremist” government.
“The Knesset is an extremist place. It’s not an easy place to work,” Tibi said.
The government led by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that came to power following elections in 2015 is widely considered the most right wing in Israel’s history. It strongly supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and some members favour annexing parts of the West Bank.
The 2015 election also saw Arab- Israeli parties form a common political front for the first time since the creation of Israel in 1948. They founded the Joint Arab List, a coalition that ranges from Islamists to communists and even a Jewish parliamentarian.
With 13 MPs out of 120, it is the third-largest parliamentary bloc but is beset by internal divisions. Five other Arab-Israeli parliamentarians belong to other parties.
Making up about 18% of Israel’s population, Arab Israelis are descended from Palestinians who remained on their land after Israel was established. They have full voting and legal rights but say the state systematically discriminates against them.
Tibi said the atmosphere in parliament was increasingly hostile, with some members even refusing to talk to others. He said tensions spiked during three wars with Palestinians in Gaza since 2008.
“When there’s a war on, the Knesset is on fire — it’s full of racism and blatant aggression,” Tibi said.
His Jewish colleagues “did not want to hear the Arab point of view, or even to hear Arabic”, he said.
In December, the chairman of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, David Bitan, said he would prefer if Arab Israelis did not vote, accusing them of “representing Palestinian interests” rather than those of the country of which they are citizens.
Tibi said he has been the target of calls for violence. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman once said he should be put before a firing squad, Tibi said.
“Every day he tells us that we are terrorists and enemies of the state,” Tibi said.
Sometimes Arab MPs score points. Aida Touma, for example, broke a glass ceiling in 2015 when she became the first Arab to chair a standing committee in the Knesset.
“It means big challenges, as I belong to a parliamentary minority and a national minority within the state,” she said.
The Arab MPs’ colleague Basel Ghattas is facing prosecution after being accused of illegally taking mobile phones to prisoners in an Israeli jail.
He partly lost his parliamentary immunity and was indicted after Zeev Elkin, a minister from the Likud Party, gathered 72 parliamentary signatures demanding Ghattas be thrown out.
Israeli law says such a vote can be held if at least 70 members support it but Ghattas is the first such case in Israel’s history.
Adalah, an Arab-Israeli rights group, accused the attorney general of failing to give Ghattas the usual 30 days to prepare his defence before a hearing.
Ghattas said in an open letter to MPs that he was being subjected to trial by media.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, told Israeli television the issue “should be conducted within the legal framework” and that Ghattas must be allowed to defend himself.
Despite the challenges, parliamentarian Abdallah Abu Maaruf said it was important that Arabs continue to represent their interests in parliament.
“We were living here before Israel was founded but now we are 20% of the population,” he said. “As citizens, we have the legitimate right to work to change the policies of discrimination against Arabs in Israel so we won’t leave this platform.”