The government’s latest attempts to oust Balad from the Knesset are part of an intensifying campaign against Arab political movements, regardless of their different stripes.
Three months ago, when the Israeli government outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, Palestinian citizens of Israel feared that they were witnessing the beginning of an intensified campaign against Arab political groups. Many suspected at the time that the government’s next target would be the Balad party, the nationalist faction of the Joint List, which has been in the crosshairs of consecutive Israeli governments since the 1990s.
Those suspicions were confirmed last week when the Knesset Ethics Committee banned all three of Balad’s Knesset members from attending parliamentary sessions for 2 to 4 months (they can still vote on legislation). The unusual decision was made after the MKs met with families of Palestinians from Jerusalem who had killed or attacked Israelis in recent months. Israeli authorities are refusing to release the attackers’ bodies, and the families were seeking help in arranging their return for burial.
Palestinian citizens of Israel had mixed views of the Balad MKs’ meeting with the attackers’ families. Many argued that the MKs were fulfilling their parliamentary roles in a humanitarian case, particularly one in which families were being collectively punished. Others argued that the MKs should have been more mindful of the scrutiny they were under, particularly regarding an issue most Israelis saw as morally and politically abhorrent.
Despite these debates, Palestinian citizens were nonetheless startled by how Jewish politicians spun the MKs’ meeting to justify the Knesset suspension. The media, and most Israelis, took little interest in the meeting’s purpose, and instead focused on a “minute of silence” in which the MKs stood for the recital of the fatiha (the Quran’s opening verse), as is customary at gatherings for deceased persons. The political storm framed the incident as an endorsement of violence on the part of the Balad MKs. Also not lost on Palestinian citizens was the government’s clear double standard: punishment was being vetted out against Arab MKs for meeting with families of “terrorists,” while Jewish MKs who did the same were condoned.
The Ethics Committee’s decision, however, was just the beginning: the prime minister himself ordered that a new law be drafted to drastically expand the Knesset’s powers to remove representatives from the parliament. The new amendment would allow a qualified majority of 90 — out of 120 — MKs to temporarily or permanently suspend elected members if it believes they have “supported armed struggle or terror,” “incited to racism,” or “denied Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.” Those three charges are already stipulated under Israel’s Basic Law as criteria for disqualifying a candidate or political party from elections.
On the surface, the law would appear to be a democratic procedure, but the purpose is blatantly discriminatory. Critics correctly argue that the proposed law further facilitates a tyranny of the Jewish majority over the Palestinian minority – a result very likely in Balad’s case, considering that the Jewish center-left often echoes the right wing’s calls to expel the party. Furthermore, the law is deliberately being written to ensure it will be “applicable, in practice, only to Arab MKs,” one Knesset source told Haaretz.
If passed, the new law would be just the latest in a repertoire of tools used to undermine Palestinian citizens’ political participation. In every election since 2002, Jewish parties have abused the disqualification proceedings to target Arab parties, despite the Supreme Court’s repeated rejection and cancellations of their attempts. Two years ago, the government raised Israel’s electoral threshold as another way to prevent the four small Arab political parties from entering the Knesset – a move that pushed the parties to run as a single slate.
Baseless criminal indictments have also been frequently employed to harass Arab politicians who participated in protests, including against Ayman Odeh and Mohammad Barakeh. Haneen Zoabi, the poster woman for the right wing’s attacks, is consistently portrayed as an outsized violent leader, which is completely detached from her stature even among Palestinian citizens. All the while, Palestinians’ voting rights are routinely paraded as threats in order to galvanize right-wing Jewish voters, as Netanyahu demonstrated when he warned of Arabs “coming out in droves” in last year’s elections.
Israel’s attacks on Arab parties are therefore not new – but they are increasing in their pace and severity. With the government shifting its attention from the Islamic Movement to Balad, Palestinian citizens’ fears of a “domino effect” are quickly being realized. As a result, Palestinian citizens of all ideological stripes find themselves uniting behind a common political cause once again: to remind the Jewish majority and the world that, when it comes to its minority citizens, Israel’s claim of being an equal democratic society is an illusion.