At 9:00 A.M. on Thursday December 27, 2012, MK Hanin Zuabi entered a courtroom in the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem radiating optimism. Her experience as a Palestinian woman living in Israel (“It’s said that I am the most hated woman in the country,” she will tell me later) has led her to adopt a facial expression that does not betray emotions.
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She does not seem bowed by the weight of events since she participated in the “Free Gaza” flotilla aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in May 2010 (the ship was intercepted by the Israeli army and nine activists died), even though she came under fire from every quarter and learned firsthand the meaning of a political lynching.
She takes a seat on the front row in the courtroom. By her side are Dr. Jamal Zahalka, the chairman of Balad, and Dr. Basel Ghattas, number three (after Zuabi) on the party’s list of Knesset candidates. Relatives and friends gaze at her with pride. “Here is our national hero,” the woman sitting next to me says.
An expanded panel of nine justices, headed by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, is considering the request by the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Zuabi from running for the Knesset. The committee, whose members include MK Ofir Akunis (Likud) and Aryeh Eldad, Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir from the new Otzma Leyisrael party, is represented by attorney Avi Halevy. Zuabi’s lawyers – Hassan Jabareen and Sawsan Zaher from Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) – sat perfectly still while Halevy presented his case, not reacting even when he referred to their client as “Hanin Zuobi” and turned Zahalka into former MK Nawaf Mazalha.
Halevy argued that Zuabi’s narrative would lead to the abolition of Independence Day and the naming of streets for Yasser Arafat and George Habash. Israeli currency, according to Halevy’s apocalyptic vision, would carry portraits of Arafat, Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyah and the recently assassinated Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. Instead of “Hatikva,” he continued, the Israeli national anthem would be “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi” (which is actually the Egyptian rather than the Palestinian anthem).
According to Halevy, Zuabi’s participation aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010 was an expression of her support for terrorism and for the armed struggle of Hamas. Articles she has written, along with the Balad platform, reminded Halevy of “historic processes which are difficult to predict It took a long time to understand what happened in Germany, and we know where that ended.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, MK Michael Ben Ari asserted that if the Supreme Court did not uphold the disqualification, the justices themselves would deserve to be sent to serve on courts in Gaza.
The battle cries resounded a few minutes after Zuabi and the Balad representatives left the courtroom. “Terrorist! Filth! Kick out all the terrorists and throw the terrorist collaborators overboard!” Zuabi’s perma-smile froze, stretching her facial muscles tight, as if in a spasm. The right-wing activists, determined to prevent Zuabi from making a statement to the media in the Supreme Court building, started to push her escorts in an effort to get to her.
When camera crews rushed to capture the event, Zuabi and her group were caught in the crush. It took the ushers and security men a few minutes to recover. (“I’ve never seen anything like this in the Supreme Court,” one of them said.) “Look who the attackers are! Do something!” a woman shouted. Finally, Zuabi and the others were hustled out, surrounded by ushers.
Ben Ari seemed pleased with the turn of events. “If she is not disqualified she will throw a bomb in the Knesset,” he told reporters. “And then it will be said that two kilos of explosives is not a critical mass” – referring to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s opinion that there isn’t a “sufficient, exceptional critical mass of evidence” to justify Zuabi’s disqualification. “They should all be booted into Syria,” Ben Ari added.
The extremists won that skirmish. Zuabi was forced to make her statement to the media far from the Supreme Court building, on a busy street. The tension on her face was clear to see as she gave interviews to local and foreign media. “We expected the security people to intervene,” MK Zahalka said, “but unfortunately they did not do their job. We decided to leave by a side door in order to prevent escalation. The Kahanists would not have dared attack her. I know them to be cowards from my student days at the Hebrew University, when they harassed Arab students in exactly the same way. I fear for her life because of the incitement on the Internet and on television, which is liable to push a madman to try to harm her. There are people with her all the time, but she doesn’t always accept it. That is one of our problems.”
Killing the messenger
“I was relieved,” Zuabi tells Haaretz, after the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that she is entitled to run for the Knesset. “I wonder whether the court’s decision will change the mind of rank-and-file citizens who were persuaded that I broke the law and endangered the soldiers’ lives. Certainly I will not go from being a hated woman to being popular, but maybe people will consider listening to what I have to say. You know, it makes no difference whether I am talking about women’s employment or the status of Nazareth – it always comes back to the Marmara and that horrible, threatening woman.”
When she got up the next day in her parents’ home in Nazareth, where she lives, her mother embraced and kissed her but did not say a word, either good or bad. “My father didn’t say anything, either,” she says. “That is so typical. I am the eldest, and since childhood I have not shared things with my parents. Mother has complained for years that ‘Hanin doesn’t talk,’ and it’s true.”
Zuabi shrugs off the incident with the right-wingers in the court building. She is not afraid of them, she insists, and even chuckled when she noticed that I was shaken at the time. “I can triumph over the right-wingers who attacked us in the Supreme Court. I am a democrat and I have values, and they are a rabble.”
Is it possible to get used to masses of hate of this kind?
“I continue to work with the same passion. But it builds up into a difficulty, mentally. It is easy to make me feel pressured, because I am a little edgy. That is my personality structure and I live with it.”
Do you think the attempt to disqualify you and the attack by the right-wingers will get your party more seats?
“It increases our popularity and boosts the self-pride of the Palestinian citizens in Israel. That’s more important than Knesset seats. Yesterday I was at parlor meetings in Umm al-Fahm. I met with 150 women in six homes, and time and again I heard the sentence ‘We are proud of you as a woman.’”
Zuabi has been subjected to a process of delegitimization since the Gaza flotilla. “I was turned into a terrorist who wants to throw the Jews into the sea and destroy the state. My vision – of a state for all its citizens, and universal national and civic quality – was pushed aside. My parliamentary activity might as well be nonexistent.”
It’s been 15 years since Zuabi abandoned her desire to become a journalist and instead launched a political career in Balad. In the last Knesset elections she was number three on Balad’s slate and became the first-ever female MK in an Arab party. She submitted 124 motions in the outgoing Knesset, focusing on employment for Arab women, the dearth of shelters for girls, and law enforcement in cases of violence in general and violence against women in particular, including murder within the family. Other issues that concerned her were education and children’s rights.
“The 18th Knesset was the most racist in Israel’s history,” she says of the outgoing House. “The amendment to the Citizenship Law, which includes a declaration of loyalty to the Jewish state, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, was adopted by the government.
Even MKs from Kadima sponsored racist legislation. I stopped speaking to many MKs, who incited against me. The hottest flames came from Kadima MKS who were close to [the party’s former leader] Tzipi Livni. There was Israel Hasson, who called me a ‘shedder of blood’ and suggested checking whether I carry a knife. Also Rachel Adatto and Orit Zuaretz, the feminist, who presents herself as head of the lobby for equal rights for women. Just wild incitement: Hasson and Yulia Shamalov Berkovich branded me a ‘terrorist saboteur.’ Anastassia Michaeli [Yisrael Beiteinu] came up to the podium and waved her arms at me to stop me from speaking. The ushers told me they had never seen anything like it in the history of the Knesset.”
How did you feel?
“Disgusted. Some of the MKs are not professional and also espouse racist views. If they at least possessed a reasoned racist ideology and a political culture, that would be acceptable. They wanted to erase me. It was a real underworld atmosphere. I came to the Knesset two days after the Marmara events, stunned by the way a political protest had become a bloodbath. I hoped that the MKs would want to hear firsthand testimony. I was ready to be questioned. But I was so naive. I encountered hate politics. One day I was walking in the Knesset corridor while a Kadima MK was talking to a friend. I heard him say, ‘I feel like killing someone,’ and saw him look at me. The atmosphere was so charged and violent, I felt that if the MKs were armed they would have killed me. The intensity of their violence matched the intensity of the violence the Israeli army used against the flotilla participants.”
Did any MKs come to your defense?
“Not one. Shelly Yacimovich was silent. Tzipi Livni said nothing. I am aware of the fact she can’t abide me because of my views, but I heard no condemnation from her as leader of the opposition. Not in the Knesset and not in the media. She did not think the verbal and physical attacks on me were serious enough for her to say that this is not the political culture she advocates. That was a disappointment – not at the national level but at the personal level.
“Miri Regev [Likud] called me a ‘Trojan horse’ and told me, in Arabic, to go to Gaza,” Zuabi adds. “She is racist and violent in an underworld style. In Arabic we say she is like a woman from the market. In a discussion of the budget for the Culture and Sports Ministry, I asked Limor Livnat [Likud; the minister in charge] about the budgets earmarked for Arab schools. She did not reply. When I asked again, she said, ‘You can go back to the Marmara.’ I requested the minutes to note that instead of replying to a professional question, the minister sent me to Gaza – a place with which I have no affiliation – even though I was a member of the committee on culture and sports.”
Livnat’s media adviser stated in response that Livnat had told Zuabi in the Knesset, “You can go back to the Marmara.” The adviser added, “Minister Livnat does not have, has never had, and will never have any solidarity with a person who expressed identification with terrorists and encouraged them to harm Israel Defense Forces soldiers. It can be said that Minister Livnat responded to Zuabi in proper parliamentary language, to say the least.” Spokespersons for Livni and Yacimovich said they did not wish to comment.
For three months, Zuabi had round-the-clock security protection. To this day, she has no idea how many hate groups exist against her on Facebook. She leaves that to her aides. She received hundreds of what she believes were threatening letters, but did not open any of them and ordered most of them to be destroyed. “I also received about a hundred letters of solidarity,” she notes.
Are you afraid for your security?
“No. My mother was afraid and requested that I have bodyguards escort me everywhere. After three months I put a stop to that. The violent hate campaign was more oppressive. The damage it causes stems from fear. If I believed in isolationism, if I wanted full autonomy for Israel’s Arabs and not just cultural autonomy, as Balad calls for, that would be one thing. The damage lies in the undermining of my legitimacy in the eyes of the country’s Jewish citizens. The life of all of us – Jews and Arabs – should be one of partnership and equal rights for all. I need the Jewish citizen in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Netanya to understand and adopt my vision. It won’t work if only the Arab citizens adopt Balad’s vision. Being delegitimized chokes me.”
What do you mean?
“The Jewish and Arab citizens can live together. I am not talking about the ‘good Arab,’ who is expected to adhere to the boundaries of the discourse in Israel. Who says, ‘I live tranquilly in a democratic country and I accept the situation and want to be an Israeli in the full sense of the word.’ As an MK I am referring to Arabs who possess self-pride and do not forgo their rights. Equality and self-pride go hand-in-hand. I want that message to reach both sides. Even if you get rid of Hanin Zuabi, I am only one of many who reached the Knesset by chance. Every young Arab man and woman will tell you that I represent them. As a symbol of the new generation, I hoped my message would be received in Tel Aviv, too. But the opposite happened. Jamal Zahalka is perceived as being more moderate and is preferred, despite his age [he is 56]. I am not accepted.”
How did you become an enemy of the people?
“It’s a kill-the-messenger situation. When I point out the inequality between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians, the racism, and reiterate that a struggle is needed because there is a problem with the state’s legal structure; when I analyze the collective psychology and indicate the oppressor and the oppressed, and show that there is no coexistence and still less a state of equality, there is a desire to eradicate this particular model [of an Arab]. In other words, the state and its citizens have become used to the ‘good Arab’ model. I am the opposite of that.”
Back to the Marmara
According to a media poll, 55 percent of the Jewish population think you should have been disqualified from running in the Knesset elections.
“A similar percentage of the Jewish population thinks the state should allocate more funds to the Jewish settlements. The problem is not Hanin Zuabi. I am fighting for equality between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens according to the letter of the law, and that infuriates many people. It all started with the flotilla, which set out from Turkey in May 2010 in order to break the siege of the Gaza Strip. There were five other Arabs from Israel aboard: Sheikh Raed Salah, the head of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement; Sheikh Hamad Abu Daa’bas, the head of the movement’s southern branch; Mohammed Zidan, the chairman of the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens; and Lubna Masarwa, from the Free Gaza movement. They were all detained and freed. But the person that has preoccupied everyone is MK Hanin Zuabi.
“It’s probably because I spoke too much with the international media and described the bodies, and told them we had never imagined a scenario of being attacked by fighters from Shayetet 13 [the elite naval commandos]. I explained that the siege of the Gaza Strip is not legitimate and that we wanted to break the conspiracy of silence around it.”
A recurrent question is whether you saw firearms on the Marmara.
“There were no firearms on the Marmara. The Turkel Committee [set up by the Israeli government to examine the events] also stated that, according to IDF intelligence, the activists on the Marmara did not have combat weapons and that no violent resistance was planned in the event of an attempted takeover of the ship. Everyone was thoroughly searched in Antalya. For five days we talked about political issues. The Marmara is not some street in Hebron, where you can declare a closed military zone and open fire freely. The Turkel Committee did not invite me to testify. Maybe they were afraid I would upset the apple cart. An international commission of inquiry was the proper route for examining all the questions. Israel was afraid of its findings.”
The former IDF Spokesman, Avi Benayahu, said it was difficult to confirm your claim that you assisted Israeli soldiers. What actually happened there?
“The IDF documented everything on video. I asked to see the tapes and also suggested to journalists that they demand access to the filmed material, so that the waves of incitement against me would stop. I cannot cope with lies, because the state is stronger than I am. After the takeover of the Marmara ended, the commandos went down to the lower decks, opened the door and called out, ‘MK Zuabi, can you come over here?’ They wanted me to calm the atmosphere to prevent more violence. From that moment I was constantly filmed.”
What was your reaction?
“I shouted. Every five minutes another body or a wounded person was brought in. ‘Why didn’t you call me before the killing?’ I wanted to help, because I was afraid they would shoot us. I mediated between the soldiers and the passengers. An activist asked for milk for her 1-year-old son. They wanted to evacuate a wounded man and I explained that his spinal cord was injured, and so on. They went on filming me all the time. I didn’t hear that the IDF complained about my behavior.
“I have been subjected to incitement for two and a half years, and the soldiers of Shayetet 13 who were on the Marmara have remained silent. On December 22, 2011, the attorney general, who is not a supporter of MK Zuabi, rejected the idea that I had been involved in criminal activity of any kind during my participation in the flotilla. After examining all the evidence, he accepted the findings of the state prosecution and closed the case. The Knesset Ethics Committee stated that it possessed no substantiated evidence that I knew in advance about planned violence against the IDF soldiers.”
The decision to have Arab MKs and public figures take part in flotillas to Gaza came from the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens, and the head of the committee himself was also on the Marmara. Zuabi took part in the flotilla because it was her turn.
What about the personal price you paid?
“I fulfilled a moral obligation. Tomorrow I will take part in a demonstration and the army will open fire as in October 2000. That ended with 13 dead [referring to Israeli Arabs killed during pro-Palestine demos]. In the end the demonstrators are blamed, and not the IDF, which acted with violence. There is no reason to focus on the private case of Hanin Zuabi. I live in a country which doesn’t examine whether I broke the law and puts me on trial. The state judges me according to a political consensus determined by the Jewish majority for all the citizens. I am not prepared to pay for something I did not do.
“The flotilla was part of a political struggle from which the Arab citizens were also meant to gain,” she continues. “I opened a door that says, ‘Take us seriously, we are stubborn and not your house pets.’ The Zionist left also relies on the domesticated Arab. Enough! Stop setting the rules of the game for the Arab and stop instructing him how to wage his legitimate struggle. Enough with the slogans of ‘You should lower the nationalist frequency, turn up the volume of this argument and forgo that one.’ When we engage in a struggle we do it in our language and discourse, and without diplomatic mannerisms.”
Europe is calling
Will you be able to persuade others to accept the vision of a state of all its citizens?
“We are exerting influence, and at the moment are going through a stage in which the contradiction between a Jewish state and a democratic state is being exposed. Now we have to expose the contradiction between ‘democratic’ and ‘Jewish.’ About 30 percent of Jews prefer Jewish values to democratic values. In other words, they identify the contradiction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic,’ which is understood by every citizen in Europe and the United States. There will be a stage in which the Jewish citizens will also grasp this, especially taking into account the current political situation, with the plethora of laws against human rights, the gagging of opinions, the monitoring of university lecturers who are identified with opposition to the occupation, and the attempts to shut down ‘undisciplined’ departments at universities. And people claim I am not democratic! Later we will move to the third stage, which is how to resolve the contradiction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic.’”
How is this connected to the conflict between the two nations? And what about the right of return?
“Balad’s solution consists of two democratic states, but the situation has changed and the solution of two states for the two nations is receding into the distance. Since the second intifada, the ‘no partner’ policy and the law to expand settlements, reality has been moving in the direction of one state based on the principle of ‘all its citizens,’ meaning civic and national equality for Palestinians and Jews: a binational state.”
Why are the Arab parties so split? Do the differences among them rule out the possibility of running together?
“There is distortion and no little demagoguery in the claims made by the Arab parties. They talk about national separation – two states for two nations as a platform for coexistence – whereas the concept of a state of all its citizens, which advocates coexistence based on full civic partnership, is slandered as a platform that does not believe in coexistence. Balad has been coping with that demagoguery since its inception. It is ridiculous.
“As an Arab who lives here with Jewish citizens, I have rights in the homeland but not to the homeland. That is the type of equality granted to me by the Jewish state. I say that the important principle is not the Arabs’ integration in the state but equality and integration at the civic level.”
The Zionist left, then, riles her no less than the right wing; as she sees it, the left declaims the discourse about peace and the two-state solution no less mechanically than Benjamin Netanyahu.
“When I talk about the Palestinians in Israel, I want to talk about rights,” she says. “We are talking about a nation that was expelled from its homeland and is now living within the framework of a Zionist state which is ashamed to teach its children Arabic. It is a state that refuses to see itself as part of the Middle East and wants only to perceive itself as part of the West. Sometimes I ask myself why the Jews chose to come here, if they do not respect the culture and language of the region. You chose to come here and establish a state that has no affinity for the local culture and is alienated from and suspicious of its inhabitants.
“I am treated as though I am not part of this place. The Jews came to this land and did not want to integrate, fit in, get to know the natives and the language of the place and its culture. Years pass and I am told that I am an alien entity and have no place here. That is absurd. I am fighting for equality so that my place in my homeland will be recognized, along with the fact that this is my homeland. That requires a change in the narrative of ‘A land without a people for a people without a land.’”
Can you elaborate?
“I want to live with you, but you must also live with me. Recognize the historical fact that you came here and I was already here. You did what you did, expelled my nation and so forth. If you want to begin a new chapter, fine. But the injustice of the past must be erased and recognized, and then we can talk about equality. Equality of budgets and of civil rights is not enough. I want you to recognize my historical-political location. The Zionist left wants to erase what happened before 1948. Zionist existence refers to itself as a project of national liberation and not as a project in which a state was established at the expense of another homeland and a nation that was expelled. You want to erase us and then refashion us and then talk about equality? No way.”
To “erase” you?
“The Jews who arrived here from the Arab states and possessed a culture similar to ours also had their cultural identity erased. It was not only the creation of a new Palestinian, now known as an ‘Israeli Arab,’ who must be loyal and annul his identity. A new identity was also forged for Jews who came from the east. That is the Zionist project, which was out to create a new artificial Jew. That artificiality was needed in order to fulfill the ideological goals, which were more important than the essence of the people who came here.”
According to your view, there is no way out. Will the two nations succeed in coexisting?
“The Jewish citizens decided to live just a few kilometers from the Arab villages, so they could expropriate more and more land and stifle the Arab communities and realize their feeling of sovereignty. But then they said, ‘We don’t want to see you, and the calls of the muezzin also bother us,’ so they built fences such as you will not see in any properly run country. There are even separation fences in the city of Lod. And what does Netanyahu say? ‘The calls of the muezzin were lowered in Europe and they will be lowered here, too.’ Look how he describes the mosque, which is part of the identity and culture of this place, as though its location and cultural importance are the same as in Europe. But this is not Europe. The Israelis don’t know what true love of homeland is.”
What is love of homeland?
“To love the homeland means to love and respect its history and the natives of the place. People who love their homeland do not chop down trees, do not build ugly fences and do not destroy the natural landscape. That is not love. That is a project of lordship which says, ‘We are the masters and we want to erase the other, earlier entity that exists here.’ I think that most Arabs accept and get along with the fact that Jews live in the country. The problem is that the Jews do not get along with the presence of Palestinians. Anyone who does not accept Palestinians as part of this place and who does not recognize the fact that this is not Europe should go back to Europe.”
Not Joan of Arc
Zuabi does not hesitate to challenge the notion that Arab women in Israel should be submissive and obedient. With her tempestuous temperament, she goes on the attack at the drop of a hat. She says the attacks on her, in the Knesset and outside it, reflected gender discrimination and even misogyny.
She filed a complaint against MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), who stated from the Knesset podium, and did not retract, “One week in Gaza and we’ll see what happens to you. A 38-year-old single woman, we’ll see how you’re treated there!”
When Zuabi visited Hebron last February, dozens of settlers confronted her. Itamar Ben Gvir shouted at her, “How come no one wants to marry you, terrorist?” MK Arie Bibi (Kadima), unable to contain his joy that the Knesset House Committee recommended that her parliamentary rights be curtailed, shouted at her, “You are divorced, divorced, divorced!” – as though they were in the midst of a divorce ceremony according to Jewish religious law. Some Internet sites have no qualms speculating about her sexual identity, as she has never married.
Our first meeting took place a month ago in Nazareth. At the end of the city’s main street is a glowing neon sign of Hanin Zuabi with the slogan, “Your nation protects you.” It’s 6 P.M. and Nazareth is aglitter with colored lights for Christmas. Zuabi had just come from spending the day at Shfaram with the two other leading Balad candidates for the Knesset. They met with local residents, including youngsters. She should have been worn out but was alert and energetic. Her days during the last stretch of the campaign begin early in the morning and end around 2 A.M.
In answer to a question about whether the decision by the Central Elections Committee to disqualify her as a Knesset candidate depressed her, she said it absolutely did not. (This was before the Supreme Court overturned the decision.) Concepts such as optimism and pessimism are alien to her.
“Struggle is a way of life,” she says. “I am not Joan of Arc, and I do not think about heroes. Joan was a hero. I have never had a role model. Someone like me, who encountered discrimination from early childhood, does not need a model. My greatest influence was the education I received from my parents. I was educated to be an independent person and later made a connection between self-pride and collective pride, and started to ask questions about identity.
“As a girl I asked my mother why there was no Arab cultural center or swimming pool in Nazareth, but she did not reply. When I was 12 I asked why I was Israeli and she said, ‘You are Palestinian.’ I asked ‘Where is Palestine?’ and she replied, ‘I do not know.’ Already as a girl I knew I was a citizen of the State of Israel and that my nation’s homeland is this land, which was Palestine before 1948, and that I am part of that nation.”
The origins of her sensitivity to the principle of equality among all people can be traced to those years. “When I was in the sixth grade, I asked my mother why she was always in the kitchen and why she didn’t drive or smoke, like the men. My mother, who is a math teacher by profession, did get a driving license but has not left the kitchen to this day.”
Why didn’t you ask your father why he didn’t enter the kitchen?
“I blamed my mother for accepting the situation. I learned then that those who possess the privilege live it and will not easily relinquish it. Why should my father forgo his privilege? I concluded that this was the natural state of things, but I felt that the inequality between the sexes was unfair.”
Her father, Farouk Zuabi, was born in Nazareth in 1937. He married his cousin, Aisha, who is also Nazareth-born and five years younger than her husband. Her parents were brought up in Nazareth. Her father, like his father before him, is a lawyer. He obtained his law degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1965 and was a Sharia court judge before retiring in 1992.
The family lives in a three-story house in Nazareth. Our conversation took place in a ground-floor space used both to host guests and as a workout room. Three home-walker machines stand next to the library, most of whose books are devoted to diets, physical fitness and a healthy life. All are in Hebrew. The bottom floor serves her as a kind of office and to receive people.
Zuabi, 43, is the eldest of the siblings. After attending high school in Nazareth, she obtained a B.A. in psychology and philosophy from the University of Haifa and an M.A. in communications and media from the Hebrew University. Her dream was to be a journalist. Her sister Jenan is currently working on her doctoral dissertation in Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, and is married to an advertising executive.
Hosni Zuabi, her brother, teaches economics at Tel Aviv University and is married to a lawyer. The youngest sibling, Hibaa, is 34, has a law degree and lives with her family in Acre. Zuabi adds, with a chuckle, “They are all married with three [children].”
The woman who exerted the greatest influence on her was her grandmother, Fatma Zuabi, who was born in Syria. Fatma was married off when she was 14, to a relative who visited the family in Syria on his way from Istanbul to Nazareth. “She always told me that she was forced into marriage when she was 14, and that she never loved her husband. Before getting married she rode horses, played the oud and sang Syrian folksongs. Beginning at the age of 15 she gave birth to seven sons and two daughters. She was a progressive woman. When I was 18 someone wanted to marry me but she raised an outcry and said that I had to complete my studies first.”
Family of ‘good Arabs’
One can talk to Zuabi about love (“I have had loves,” she says), but on no account about the possibility of realizing it. “That is prohibited in our society. There is still no equality between men and women and there is no freedom.”
To be a single woman is considered a type of anomaly in Arab society. Do you have a sense of loneliness?
“I do not suffer from being single and I did not really choose this condition. I agree with you that someone who really wants to get married does so even if it entails compromise. I would be happier if I met the right man and had a family. I have not yet met him and do not really feel the lack of a framework of husband and children.”
Why does an independent, opinionated woman like you live with her parents?
“Because I don’t want to live alone. I don’t know how to cook, though that is really not a good enough reason. Possibly I failed in my love life, because I did not succeed in falling in love and establishing a family with a man of my choosing. I do not look for a partner on dating sites, but I believe that even when you are working hard you might meet someone. Why do you think an Arab man will not start up with me? Obviously I will not be the one to initiate the relationship. This is a hypothetical discussion, because the subject does not occupy me. I do not feel that I want children. Maybe one day I will regret that.”
She does not have separate quarters in her parents’ home and continues to live in her old childhood room. After a long and wearying day, she likes to return to her room and the protective family fold, as though she has remained that same little girl.
“I do not need privacy and my parents give me space when I need it,” she says. “I will continue to live in my parents’ home always, even if, heaven forbid, something happens to them. I will live there alongside my brother, who lives on the top floor with his family.”
Zuabi repeated the term “good Arab” numerous times in the interview, referring to one who integrates into Israeli society and adapts himself to the country’s collective identity. Many legends are attached to the history of the Zuabi family, in which there have also been quite a few “good Arabs.”
In 1970, Ran Kislev wrote in Haaretz that the Zuabi family is one of the noblest and most ancient in the region, and that, according to tradition, the mother of the family was the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter.
The Zuabi family was close to the Jordanian royal household and the family of the Mufti of Jerusalem. Two of its members were ministers – one in Jordan, the other in Syria. Another relative, who was a Communist, was murdered in a Syrian prison.
Seif a-Din Zuabi, who was an MK from the Mapai party – the forerunner of Labor – and mayor of Nazareth, was her parents’ uncle. Another relative, Abdel Rahman Zuabi, was the first Arab member of the Israeli Supreme Court and a member of the commission of inquiry that investigated the massacre of Arab worshipers in Hebron in February 1994.
A more distant relation, Abdel Aziz Zuabi, was a member of the left-wing Mapam party. He also served as mayor of Nazareth and deputy health minister. He married a Jewish woman from the party and established a family. “The Jews did not come to live in the Land of Israel in place of the Arabs but together with them,” he said in 1969 in an Israel Television interview.
Hanin Zuabi is unfazed by the family history and pays no heed to the various legends. “I was not raised on those legends,” she says. “I was never told at home that I came from a distinguished family. My family’s history was not presented as powerful or famous. My parents are affluent but not rich. I was raised modestly, and that freed me from feelings of guilt.”
The Zuabi family history in this country encapsulates the history of the Zionist project, which recruited Arabs who collaborated with the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund and also in the War of Independence. Seif a-Din Zuabi was one of them, I point out, and ask if she is aware of this aspect of the family history.
“I read everything that has been written about my family who collaborated with the Zionist enterprise and with the authorities,” she replies. “In his book ‘Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and Israeli Arabs, 1948-67,’ Hillel Cohen writes in detail about the family. My parents are very far from the ‘good Arab’ category. The leading figure in the political discourse at home was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who talked about strong Arab nationalism. I view the collaboration with Zionism and the authorities as part of the development of the Palestinians in Israel.
“My father did not agree with what they represented and said they behaved as they did because they did not believe they had the strength to wage a struggle based on a Palestinian identity. They believed in their weakness. They believed that the state would be strong and that their only option was to safeguard their nation’s interests. They did not think they were traitors. That was their way of surviving in their homeland.”
Many Arabs advocate army service. What is your view?
“We are against military service and against substitutes such as national service. The state itself is not serious about this, as it has not declared compulsory service and will not allow Arabs to get combat training. Why should I serve in the IDF if I am not loyal to the state? The state, in all its brazenness, tells me I must be loyal – meaning that I have to be a Zionist. It is brazen enough to ask us why Balad rejects military service. No one buys the dumb excuse that young Arabs will serve in alternative institutions within the framework of national service.
“Where will we serve? Most of the Arab settlements are rural and look like slums. The streets are not paved and there are no public parks or proper libraries. We do not have hospitals or employment centers or industrial plants. I think the state is planning a war situation, in which the Jewish civilians will be mobilized for the battlefields and the Arabs will manage the internal civil front. What is the message to Arab youth? Well, we do not accept that we have to serve the state, because that is contrary to our history and our values. The state has to serve us and it must decide whether it wants to continue being Jewish-democratic. If so, we are not obliged to serve it in any way.”
Why shouldn’t the Arab towns and villages encourage independent community activity and urge the residents to pay municipal taxes?
“We are a passive society in all spheres. We are among the most quiescent minorities in the world. If a state – a Palestinian state, say – did to the Jews what the Jews did to the Arab citizens, the Jews would have rebelled long before, and far more fiercely. The local government must be professional, not clan-based, in order to reflect the interests of the residents. That would intensify our struggle against the state authorities. People tend to forget that, between 1949 and 1966, we were under military government. I agree with you that the critique should be aimed not only at the state but also at education and at the depressing reality which led to the passivity of the Arab society in this country.”
Why, for two years, has the voice of Arabs in Israel not been heard on the issue of the killings in Syria? Why have you not condemned President Bashar Assad?
“Who said we have not condemned him? I don’t have to condemn people in Hebrew. Just because people in Tel Aviv haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean that I agree to have others set tests for me of how and what to say. I published articles, which also appeared on the Arabs48 website, and I declared that we are against the killings by all sides. We have reports about all kinds of organizations, such as Al-Qaida, that are also responsible for the killing, and we said that Assad, as the leader of Syria, should take responsibility for killing being perpetrated by armed organizations.
“By the way, the official stand of Balad is that we are in favor of the legitimate demands of the leaders of the revolution and in favor of democracy for the Syrian people. We advocate freedom and liberty, and are against dictatorship.”
Do you admire Balad founder Azmi Bishara, who left Israel. He infuriated many people, including those who supported the idea of a state of all its citizens?
“Bishara was a rebel. The vision of ‘the state of all its citizens’ is revolutionary. I admire him. Bishara did as he pleased and did not follow the recipe of ‘What I need to do in order to be accepted.’”
Do you ever see him?
“Occasionally, in Amman, where he runs one of the most important research institutions in the Arab world. He takes an interest and asks what’s happening in Balad. Bishara is an intellectual and a political person who, in his appearances in the Arab media – especially on Al Jazeera – influenced the revolution in Egypt. As I said, I admire him. He is perceived as a nationalist but he is the one who persuaded me that we must take our citizenship seriously, and that it is possible to reconcile citizenship and nationalism.
Before I met him I separated the two. I boycotted the Knesset elections from the age of 18. I felt that my citizenship was here and my nationalism far off, somewhere else, and I chose nationalism.
“Bishara is often described in instrumental terms, but he presented a vision of life together for the two nations. He is the most democratic person I have ever met. Just as I was uncertain about my identity already at primary-school age, so no Palestinian needs Bishara for this particular conciliation between citizenship and nationalism.”
Why did he flee from Israel in 2007?
“We decided in Balad that he had to leave. From the moment we realized the Shin Bet security service had framed him in order to jail him – and not for four-five years but for life – we decided he would leave. We consulted with Arab jurists and with a number of jurists from Tel Aviv in order to get an opinion about how hefty the case was. After all, they said of Bishara that he got phone calls from Hezbollah agents and directed the missiles. In what direction? Journalists interviewed him and the conversations were recorded. You can easily overturn the analysis so that he supposedly provided information. Where would he have information from? How would he direct the missiles? The lawyers in Tel Aviv said there was classified material that was made available only to the judges, so it would be difficult to defend him.”
Does he miss Israel?
“Yes, I think he does.”
Taking into account the sequence of events she has experienced in the past two years, Zuabi turns out to have stamina and leadership qualities. Will these eventually pave the way for her to succeed Bishara and Zahalka as leader of Balad?
“Definitely,” she says. “I am positive, on the basis of the views of the members of Balad, that they will choose me, as a woman, to head the list [of Knesset candidates].”
The Israeli connection
Zuabi is a selective reader of the Israeli press. Her advisers send her links to recommended articles, including some in the right-of-center newspapers Maariv and the freebie Israel Hayom. She also peruses the international press, particularly the Arabic-language papers published in London and the Arabs48 website. She watched the reports on her by Channel 1 and Channel 2. She reads every biography of Israeli leaders, including one of Netanyahu. In literature she prefers Arab writers; she recently read works by the Lebanese author Rabee Jaber and the Egyptian writer Baha Taher.
“I am fond of literature that is published in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, but I also read and loved the works of Emile Habibi,” she notes, referring to the late Haifa-based writer. She admires the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, especially his novel “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years,” which she has read more than once in Hebrew translation. Other writers she is fond of – and reads in Hebrew translation – are Milan Kundera, Alberto Moravia and Jose Saramago.
The first book she read in Hebrew was Amos Oz’s 1986 novel “Black Box.” “I don’t know why, but I liked it,” she says. “His  book ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness’ made me angry, especially the way Oz described Jerusalem and the heroes who came to make the desert wilderness bloom.” It’s a “Zionist book,” she says – she stopped reading halfway through.
Do you have Jewish Israeli friends?
“Not at present. When I was a student I had a Jewish girl friend.”