The High Court of Justice on Wednesday denied a petition submitted by MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) to overturn her six month suspension from addressing the Knesset and Knesset committees over comments she made following the kidnap of three teens last summer.
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The justices were highly critical of Zoabi during their discussion on Tuesday: “I personally don’t understand how a person who declares that he believes in nonviolence can say that those who kidnap children are not terrorists,” said Justice Esther Hayut. “It’s black snow.”
Justice Salim Joubran also criticized Zoabi’s remarks, calling them “not simple, very difficult” statements.
After the two-hour hearing, Justice Miriam Naor said the five-justice panel would shortly issue its decision, but not its reasoning, with the explanations to be published at a later date.
In July, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Zoabi for remarks after Palestinians had kidnapped and murdered three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank the previous month.
Zoabi told Radio Tel Aviv, “Is it strange that people living under occupation and living impossible lives, in a situation where Israel kidnaps new prisoners every day, is it strange that they kidnap? They are not terrorists. Even if I do not agree with them, they are people who do not see any way to change their reality, and they are compelled to use means like these.”
Zoabi also said she encouraged the Palestinians to “declare a popular uprising” and “impose a siege on Israel instead of negotiating with it.”
The Ethics Committee suspended Zoabi on the grounds that these expressions violated Section 1A of the Knesset ethics code, which states that an MK must work “for the good of the state.”
Zoabi petitioned the High Court against the suspension, along with the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The petitioners argued that the Ethics Committee had exceeded its authority and undermined freedom of political expression, and that the decision was discriminatory and disproportionate. Zoabi's six-month suspension is to end on January 29.
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who represented the Knesset at the hearing, said Zoabi’s second remark was worse than her first, and the justices agreed.
“The good of the state is an elusive concept that can be abused,” said Hayut, mentioning “a statement by a Knesset member that runs contrary to our common ground” — something that “not only infuriates part of the public but expresses a clear perspective against the state as such.”
According to Hayut, “when one suggests sanctions, a siege on the state; when one actually understands and identifies with people who kidnap children, how can these things be identified with the good of the state in the minimal, most basic way?”
Zoabi’s attorney, Adalah director Hassan Jabareen, said his client had not meant a military siege on Israel, but a diplomatic one. Jabareen said Zoabi simply intended to help end the occupation.
“If there were no common denominator [between Zoabi and the other MKs], no petition would have been filed," he said. "The petition was filed because of a struggle for equal citizenship. Must the majority determine what’s the good of the state? Good for Israel’s citizens would be to end the occupation.”
Justice Elyakim Rubinstein cut Jabareen off. “Ending the occupation is one thing,” he said. “How will the occupation end without negotiations?”
Jabareen added: “Because of one word [siege] such a heavy punishment gets imposed on an MK? Everyone knows that [Zoabi didn’t mean] a military siege. If the state’s position is accepted, the majority can come and ask an MK political questions and then impose sanctions on him. I’m here because the majority in the Knesset was heavy-handed. The role of the Supreme Court is to protect the minority.”
The justices noted that Zoabi’s explanations about referring to a diplomatic siege had not been made in front of the Ethics Committee or in front of the full Knesset, to which Zoabi had also appealed. They were a line of defense being raised for the first time.
As to whether Zoabi’s punishment was disproportionate, Naor asked the petitioners to point out one case in which a parliament member made similar remarks anywhere in the world and the legislature ignored it.
Yinon did not deny that the punishment was exceptional, but noted that for three of the six months the Knesset was in recess. Naor added that in practice the suspension was for only a month and a half because the Knesset had dissolved itself this week in the run-up to the March 17 election.
Yinon added that the Ethics Committee receives many complaints about Zoabi, most of which are never even discussed. “But this time the feeling of the committee members was that they could not accept such expressions within the space of free political expression,” he said.