The High Court of Justice on Thursday convened to hear an appeal that challenged a contentious decision to bar Hanin Zoabi, a firebrand MK from the Arab Balad party, from participating in the forthcoming general elections

The petition against Zoabi, which was spearheaded by Likud MK Ofir Akunis, claimed that the parliamentarian had undermined the state and its institutions, including the IDF, by participating in the Mavi Marmara flotilla that tried to breach the Israeli-imposed maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010.

The Central Elections Committee, a body made up of Knesset members of various parties, ruled against Zoabi last week. The High Court’s decision on the appeal will be announced by Sunday.

After the court session there was an exchange of curses and shouting between Zoabi and hawkish politicians, with MK Michael Ben-Ari (Otzma Leyisrael) and other right-wingers calling her a “traitor” and a “terrorist.” The confrontation verged on physical violence.

“The racist and fascist right is having its way not only in Knesset but also in court. [But] I believe that the court will overturn the racist decision,” Zoabi said, claiming that there was “no legal basis” for her disqualification.

Zoabi’s place “is not in Israel’s Knesset but in jail,” MK Danny Danon of the Likud party said before the hearing. “The court must do justice today and send her home.”

It was unacceptable for Zoabi to “spit on the state,” Danon said. “If the court doesn’t do justice, the Knesset will have to change the law” regarding the legal disqualification of nominees.

Because of the delicate nature of the discussion and the potentially far-reaching implications of the decision, the court featured an extended panel of nine judges headed by the Supreme Court’s president, Asher Grunis.

In the original decision, the Central Elections Committee turned back requests to disqualify the Balad party along with Zoabi, as well as calls to ban the United Arab List party on the one hand, and the hawkish Otzma Leyisrael on the other.

At the time, Zoabi expressed contempt for the decision, accusing the committee of being tainted by political motivations. “The decision is illegitimate. It is an expression of the tyranny of the majority and the destruction of basic democratic rights. It is the result of political vengeance and a miserable attempt to tread on the rights of an entire population,” she said.

Balad party chairman Jamal Zahalke pledged that if the committee’s decision to ban Zoabi was not overturned by the court, the entire party would withdraw from the elections.

Would-be MK Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right candidate whose Otzma Leyisrael party has been accused of racism, speaks at a Knesset Election Committee meeting where a vote was passed banning Arab parliament member Hanin Zoabi from running in the upcoming elections. Arab MKs including Ahmed Tibi (front, second from left) look on. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Would-be MK Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right candidate whose Otzma Leyisrael party has been accused of racism, speaks at a Knesset Election Committee meeting where a vote was passed banning Arab parliament member Hanin Zoabi from running in the upcoming elections. Arab MKs including Ahmed Tibi (front, second from left) look on. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Coalition Against Racism in Israel opposed the committee’s decision. “A strong democracy is tested by its ability to contain opinions, even if they are different or hurtful,” said coalition director Nadal Othomann. “Even if we do not all agree with Zoabi’s words, we shall fight for her right to express them,” he said.

Akunis, lauding the decision, said that “MK Zoabi clearly violated basic Israeli law when she took part in the Marmara terror act and so she has no place in the Knesset. A democracy needs to know how to defend itself from those who wish to destroy it from within. I hope and believe that the disqualification will be ratified by the Supreme Court.”

Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein has written that there are not sufficient grounds to disqualify any of the candidates in the January 22 elections.

Zoabi has explained her presence on the Mavi Marmara ferry, which attempted to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, by saying that the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab citizens of Israel, the body that represents the country’s Arab population, was asked to participate by the European organizers, and that she was chosen to sail with the protesters. Zoabi claimed she paid her own fare and was in no way associated with the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which sponsored the flotilla.

During a raid on the Mavi Marmara by Israeli commandos, nine Turkish citizens were killed, deepening a diplomatic crisis with Ankara that has yet to be resolved. Earlier this year it was reported that the head of the IHH was under investigation for transferring funds to al-Qaeda.