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ISRAEL: Parliament comes close to blows over flotilla raid

June 3, 2010 |  9:30 am

A discussion in Israel's parliament Wednesday went from heated to a total boil as lawmaker Haneen Zoabi took the stand. Zoabi, an Arab Israeli legislator, took part in the Gaza flotilla and was aboard the Mavi Marmara during the ill-fated takeover that left nine dead and dozens more injured. 

Jewish public opinion in Israel was not impressed with her decision to join aid ship. Some dismissed it as a populist, attention-seeking move. Others denounced her participation as siding with the country's enemies conspiring against the state. 

By the time Zoabi returned, tens of thousands had signed an online petition to remove her from parliament. The petition states it isn't against freedom of expression but against public officials elected to serve the entire public exploiting democracy and taxpayers' money to serve extremists.

The Knesset discussed the flotilla Wednesday. Words were sharp from the start. "Go to Gaza, you traitor," lawmaker Miri Regev told Zoabi in Arabic, hoping she had learned to say it correctly. When Zoabi took the podium, everyone lost it. Anastassia Michaeli tried to remove her from the podium. She got removed from the plenum, the first of many to be physically removed as the debate turned into part catfight, part bar brawl and part cursing competition.

Chants of "traitors," "terrorists," "murderers," "racists" were everywhere. "Where's her knife?" and "go back to Russia" sounded demands. "Out!" ordered Carmel Shama and then house-speaker Reuven Rivlin repeatedly, pounding gavels and sending legislators out for time-out, air and coffee. Rivlin had been meeting with guests from the Czech senate, watching the debate out of the corner of his eye. At a certain stage he'd seen enough and hurried to take over from Shama, a deputy, but the damage was done -- and for all to see. There is a live broadcast from parliament.

The attacks got personal too. Spend a week in Gaza, let's see how a single woman of 38 manages there, suggested Yohanan Plessner -- who explained the next morning that he wasn't being sexist but wanted to show Zoabi that supporting Hamas also supports its violation of women's rights, liberalism and pluralistic values for which the lawmaker says she fights. Zoabi was stone-faced throughout the ongoing verbal attack but that comment seemed to rattle her.

The parliament coming so close to blows highlights the anger and confusion from all sides over the flotilla but also taps into ongoing tensions between Arab and Jewish legislators in the current Knesset, considered to be on the conservative, right-wing side.

Stay tuned for the next episode, in which a parliamentary committee votes on restricting rights of Zoabi and other Arab members who met with Moammar Kadafi in Libya in late April. Discussion of the Libya fallout was postponed until next week in an attempt to keep the agenda separate from the flotilla discussion. Now, it might be difficult to separate them.

One thing about the flotilla uproar is that it lends itself nicely to metaphors, as demonstrated by the last week's headlines, which in one form or another of included "ship of fools" and "sea of stupidity." The title of former lawmaker Yossi Sarid's article in Haaretz about one of the lowest points in parliamentary history was a new variation: "Gaza flotilla uproar exposes Knesset as sinking ship of fools." 

--  Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Video: Highlights of low points of Israel's parliament, as broadcast on the Knesset Channel. Credit: YouTube

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