Haneen Zoabi in conversation

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Haneen Zoabi MK. Photo: Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Nazareth, Haneen Zoabi's home city in northern Israel, is a chaotic mess of streets and nondescript buildings that has seen better days from an architectural and planning perspective.

It is a kind of metaphor for the member of the Knesset's major constituency, the little over a million Palestinian-Arabs or Arab-Israelis living inside the state of Israel today.

The childhood home of Jesus was actually a small, beautiful historical town in 1948 that never really recovered from an overwhelming flood of refugees that had managed to escape the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians in what is called the Nakba or catastrophe by the armed forces of the then new state of Israel.

The 41-year-old Israeli politician recently came to Canada to address $100-a-plate fundraising dinners in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa for the Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Diminutive in stature, Zoabi received towering international attention when she was among the passengers on the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the flotilla that attempted to bust the blockade around Gaza, an attempt that was ruthlessly suppressed when Israeli commandos came on board in international waters and shot and killed nine activists.

You can still catch on YouTube the efforts of her fellow parliamentarians to shout down Zoabi, when during a session of the Knesset she attempted to address her concerns about the Israel Defence Forces' actions against the flotilla.

The woman, who was set upon by "jackals," as described by a sympathetic Israeli-Jewish commentator, was ushered around by bodyguards for some weeks because of a raft of death threats directed at her within her country.

Zoabi continues to stir up things. She was one of two Arab Knesset members (MKs) injured by what was reported as Israel police rubber bullets during a rally in the Arab-Israeli community of Umm al Fahm protesting a hate march by members of the right-wing Jewish extremist Kach party.

And despite an on-campus ban by the University of Haifa, the MK managed to address a meeting of Arab students who are members of her political party, the National Democratic Assembly.

But it is not just Zoabi's audacity that is drawing the ire of a shrill right-wing constituency that dominates Israeli political life today.

Zoabi and her party have been the most forthright within Arab-Israeli politics in their assertion that Israel's self definition as a Jewish state is the major barrier towards achieving any equality between the Jewish Hebrew speaking majority and the Arab minority.

The new problem in the on-and-off again peace talks is that coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah accept Israel as a Jewish state before any agreement on a negotiated Palestinian state in the occupied territories can take place.

In a wide-ranging interview during her visit to Canada, Zoabi shows she is unmoved.

"I don't like the word Israeli. We call ourselves Palestinian citizens of Israel, as long as Israeli defines itself as a Jewish state. I cannot define myself as an Israeli citizen, because it is a contradiction, Israel defines itself as a state for Jews, and so I cannot define myself as an Israeli," she told me.

She reports that the Israeli government wishes to control how Palestinians in Israel perceive themselves through the educational system where the teaching of the Nakba is forbidden.
Up to recently, the Israeli government had the right to appoint the principals of all of the elementary schools in Arab-Israeli communities. Now that has been extended to high schools in the same towns and cities.

"The teaching of Palestinian history is dependent upon the courage of the teacher," said Zoabi.

Another telling statistic from Zoabi is that 50 per cent of Arab-Israelis live below the poverty line. This stems from an inability of Arab communities in Israel of receiving sufficient financial assistance to invest in their own infrastructure and services for new industries.

Now, you may have heard about how Palestinians in occupied east Jerusalem are forced to build or renovate their homes illegally because of the difficulty in receiving building permits from the municipality of greater Jerusalem.

That same restriction also applies to Arab communities within Israel. They are generally prevented from expanding by the Israel government ministry of the interior, which has the power to approve all local planning, right down to the individual homes and their ceilings, says Zoabi.

The result is that at least 10,000 Arab homes within Israel proper are now under threat of demolition by the state, says Zoabi.

Young Arab-Israeli couples who want to start a family find they either have the unenviable choice of going homeless or build or renovate a house illegally because obtaining an official approval is virtually impossible, she explains.

Since 1948, Israel has controlled 82 per cent of the land in Israel where 600 Jewish towns and cities were built on what was Arab property. In the meantime, Arab-Israelis, who represent 18 per cent of the Israeli population, have access to two per cent of the land, Zoabi said.

Some of this same land is now being privatized and being sold to Israeli Jews.

Zoabi graduated with an MA in communications from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She says the marginalization of Arab-Israelis is reflected in the Israeli-Jewish media.

Here Zoabi lists more stats -- out of 3,000 journalists, fewer than 10 Arabs work as reporters for newspapers, radio or television in Israel. Most of them, including the two who write for Ha'aretz, Israel's leading liberal daily, hold part-time positions.

"There is no censorship [within the media] with regards to inside [the] Israeli-Jewish community [on topics] such as corruption, the Israeli economic policies and social policies. But with issues [involving] the Palestinian citizens inside Israel, the professionalism ends and the [Zionist] ideology starts to work here," Zoabi said.

She provides more data. Arab-Israelis find their reality is reflected in only two per cent of the news stories carried in the Israeli media. Furthermore, 84 per cent of those stories about Arab-Israelis are negative.

"The picture of the Palestinian people in Israel is that we are hostile to the state, we have no rights in our homeland, and this is not our homeland."

Much international attention has been paid to the presence in the current Israeli coalition government of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose openly racist party Yisrael Beiteinu advocates loyalty oaths for non-Jews in Israel. The party also calls for withdrawal of the citizenship rights of Arab-Israelis and the transference of their communities to a newly negotiated Palestinian state.

But Zoabi warns that it is naïve to perceive that such a politician represents some sort of fringe phenomenon in Israel. He is much more mainstream than that.

Indeed, she says, the appearance of Lieberman on the Israel political scene is a logical outcome of a worsening condition of second-class status for Arab-Israelis -- in 2007, they were described as "a strategic threat" by the Israel government security agency Shin Bet.

"Delegitimizing our rights as citizens have led to this inevitable outcome of Lieberman, Lieberman now is not the margin, he is not the exception in the Knesset, and the fact is Lieberman is now the consensus," she said.

Paul Weinberg is a Toronto-based writer.

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