Clashes Erupt as High Court Debates Disqualification of Israeli Arab MK

Right-wing MK says if judges were to allow Hanin Zuabi (Balad) to run for 19th Knesset, he 'would send them all to Gaza.'

Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman
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Ofra Edelman
Ofra Edelman

A verbal and physical scuffle erupted Thursday, after Israel's High Court of Justice heard a petition against a decision to ban Israeli Arab lawmaker Hanin Zuabi from running in the January 22 Knesset elections.

After the hearing, more than two dozen extreme-right activists tried to physically block Zuabi from leaving, pushing her entourage and yelling insults, including "You disgusting terrorist, go to Syria," "We’ll send you to Gadhafi,” and "Go to Gaza."

A skirmish including shoves developed between the sides until Court Guard personnel intervened and smuggled Zuabi, who is 43 and from the Arab town of Nazareth in northern Israel, out through another hall.

Israel's Central Elections Commission last week disqualified Zuabi, of the three-seat Balad party, based on a Basic Law which states that anyone who denies Israel's existence as a Jewish state, or supports armed struggle against it, may not be a candidate for the 19th Knesset (parliament). At the end of a lengthy deliberation, 19 CEC members voted for the disqualification, nine against and one abstained. The disqualification, on the grounds that Zuabi identifies with terror organizations, occurred even though Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he was opposed to it.

Ultra-right lawmaker Michael BenAri (Otzma Leyisrael) charged that if Zuabi, who participated in a 2010 flotilla that had sought to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, were not disqualified today, "tomorrow she'd throw a bomb in the Knesset." He added that if the panel of nine judges allowed her to run, "I would send them all to Gaza. They can be outstanding judges under (Hamas leader Ismail) Haniyeh," he told reporters.

Zuabi took part in the May 2010 flotilla of pro-Palestinian activists headed to Gaza, which ended in the deaths of nine activists when Israeli commandos stormed the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara in international waters. Israel said the flotilla was a violent provocation and said the activists had attacked the commandos with sticks and knives. Zuabi said she had not been on the deck where the clashes took places and had not witnessed them.

Ben-Ari added that “anyone who participated in the Mavi Marmara flotilla is a criminal. To our great regret this is the court that legitimized (former Balad MK) Azmi Bishara. We have come to say that this woman should be in prison." When asked about having, as an MK, been partner to violence displayed toward Zuabi, Ben Ari said, “I did not hit her. The people who did the hitting were the people from Balad.”

The High Court, which made no decision on Thursday, said it would announce its ruling on the petition by Sunday.

After the decision to disqualify her, Zuabi stated this week that “a black flag of illegitimacy, tyranny and the crushing of a basic democratic right hovers over this decision. The decision is a result of political vengefulness and a wretched attempt to damage the representation of the Arab public.” According to her, “Instead of conducting a public debate – they want to silence me and together with me an entire public, and we will not cooperate with this silencing.”

Balad party chairman MK Jamal Zahalka also attacked the decision last week and said it is neither legal nor democratic and it is part of the extreme right’s election campaign. “We fully support MK Hanin Zuabi and all her activities,” he declared, “and stress that if the High Court does not reverse the decision the Balad slate will not participate in the coming Knesset election.”

"There is no basis whatsoever for the disqualification," a smiling Zuabi told reporters as she entered the court on Thursday. "I didn't break any law. The racists should be in court, not I."

The court is expected to reject the disqualification.

Israel's CEC has disqualified parties in the past, including two Arab ones in 2009, but the court has overturned all such decisions, except for the banning of Rabbi Meir Kahane's extremist Jewish Kach party in 1988.

On such case was in 2009, when the CEC decided to disqualify the Balad and United Arab List–Ta’al slates, but the High Court subsequently overturned the ban.

In the elections to the 16th Knesset in 2003, the committee disqualified the candidacies of MKs Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara but the High Court of Justice reversed the decisions then, too, and approved their candidacies. At that time the committee also discussed requests to disqualify the Arab parties Balad and UAL-Ta’al on the grounds that they identify with terror organization but in the end the parties were allowed.

Of the 10 decisions the Central Elections Committee has taken over the years to ban parties or candidates, the High Court of Justice has upheld only three: The Socialists list was banned in 1964 and the Kach and Kahane Hai lists were banned in 1988 and 1992.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel warned that disqualifying candidates or party lists "on ideological grounds seriously damages" the country's democracy.

Hanin Zuabi at the Supreme Court, Jerusalem, on Dec. 27, 2012. Credit: Emil Salman

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