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ISRAEL: Arab Israeli lawmaker could lose parliamentary privileges for being aboard Gaza flotilla

June 7, 2010 |  9:07 am

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As Israel continues to assess the May 31 flotilla raid and its diplomatic backlash in public and behind closed government doors, its parliament continues to deal with one of its own -- Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset who was aboard the Mavi Marmara that led the flotilla of ships to Gaza.

Zoabi may have gotten off the ship physically unharmed, but her stormy voyage through public fury and rage in parliament were just beginning. Last week, a stormy session in parliament nearly turned into an unsightly brawl when lawmakers tried to remove her from the podium and others called her a traitor.

The next installment came Monday, when a parliamentary committee recommended that Zoabi lose several special privileges she enjoys as legislator, including a diplomatic passport (for a certain period), parliamentary coverage of legal bills and expedited travel out of the country, such as waiving the need for a special permit for travel to countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

The committee's recommendation requires parliament's approval but some members couldn't wait; they opened a bottle of wine.

Later on the radio, a furious Zoabi said: "What the committee did today was not deny my rights but the Arab members' already-restricted freedom of action." This was no political persecution, this was a political field trial in which the lawmakers were judges and executors, she went on, saying "they spilled my blood and called the public to harm me." Sarcastically, she said the toast was a "fine tribute to parliament and democracy."

But she'd do it all again, Zoabi said. Dismissing accusations that she violated a closed military zone order and took part in violent acts against Israeli soldiers, she said, "if anyone needs to stand trial, it is Israel," which is guilty of perpetrating an attack in forbidden territory. Any anger over endangering soldiers should be directed at the prime minister and defense minister who sent them there, she said.

Holding 1.5 million people under siege and claiming that that is the only way to attain security for Israel is a crime, Zoabi said, adding that when she opposes occupation and blockade, she is not only contributing to democracy but also to Israel's security. "My way does more for Israel's security than the army's," she said.

Lawmaker Michael Ben Ari staunchly defended the committee's decision. Asked if a toast was really in order, he told Israel Radio that "after the Jewish nation was humiliated by Haneen Zoabi and the Arab members of Knesset who collaborate with terror," then yes, a toast was certainly called for in salute "to the people of Israel and IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers." Ben Ari described the committee's decision as "drawing a red line, pulling the brakes on Zoabi" and sending a message to other Arab lawmakers. Today was the first step in blocking the front-line terror outpost in parliament, said Ben Ari, who is considered a follower of Meir Kahane's ultra-nationalist teachings.

It must be "Kahane week" in parliament, said legislator Ahmad Tibi, referring to the assassinated leader of Kach, a movement banned from parliament for being racist and undemocratic and later outlawed altogether. "This is the most racist Knesset I have ever known."

The mood in parliament is extremely tense. "You're dead," read the fax received Monday by legislator Taleb A-Sana, who later said he was verbally assaulted by a stranger in the Knesset building. A-Sana accused "the fascist right" of poisoning the air and exploiting the crisis for political gain. Israel is facing a leadership crisis and is venting its frustration on its minorities, he said.

Police are still investigating Zoabi and a number of other Israeli citizens who were aboard the ships. When the police completes its investigation and passes the material on to the attorney general, he will decide whether to indict Zoabi or not. Upon indictment, the lawmaker would lose her parliamentary immunity.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top: Michael Ben Ari, left, and Haneen Zoabi appear on Israeli TV in 2009. Even then the two first-time parliamentarians' beliefs were at odds -- and the gulf has widened in the wake of the deadly flotilla raid. Credit: YouTube

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