In the running

Coexistence, despite everything

In the jungle of the Knesset, Hanna Swaid is an endangered species. The final installment in a six-part series of profiles ahead of the elections

MK Hanna Swaid, foreground, of the Jewish-Arab Hadash party. (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)
MK Hanna Swaid, foreground, of the Jewish-Arab Hadash party. (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)

At the end of October, 1948, Israeli troops captured the village of Eilaboun and its 800 Christian residents. The soldiers were taking part in Operation Hiram, in which the recently created Israeli military conquered a swath of Galilee as it struggled to repel five Arab armies. 

The troops, from the Golani Brigade, selected 12 young men from Eilaboun and shot them. Then they rounded up the rest of the villagers and expelled them northward toward Lebanon.

This incident, recounted by Israeli historian Benny Morris, seems to have been sparked by the troops’ discovery of the mutilated bodies of two soldiers who had been captured by Arab forces nearby; there were reports of a procession in which the soldiers’ heads were paraded through the village. More broadly, Morris has written, the massacre at Eilaboun and several similar incidents throughout the north at the time were “apparently related to a general vengefulness and a desire by local commanders to precipitate a civilian exodus.”

Among the villagers driven out of Eilaboun that day were Nofajeh and Nofal Swaid, young parents of three boys ages 5, 3 and 1. They made the trek to Lebanon on foot along winter roads.

In a twist to the usual story from that war, in which an estimated 726,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees, the Roman Catholic Church appears to have become aware of what had happened at Eilaboun and pressure was brought to bear on Israel’s new government to reverse the expulsion. The villagers were allowed home. They found their village stripped of livestock and belongings; only the shells of houses were left.

“Eilaboun,” said Hanna Swaid, “started from scratch in 1948.”

If you have been following Israeli politics over the past four years, you have probably heard of the Israeli Arab lawmaker Hanin Zoabi. Zoabi, from the nationalist party Balad, gained notoriety for participating in the violent Mavi Marmara protest flotilla in 2010 and for other political provocations that have made her famous and a favorite target for politicians of the right. For many, she has come to represent Israel’s Arab citizens.

Even among those paying attention, however, few have heard of Hanna Swaid.

Second on the list of Hadash, an Arab-Jewish socialist party which currently has four seats in parliament, Swaid is one of the most erudite and effective lawmakers in the Knesset. A civil engineer with a PhD from the Technion in Haifa, he speaks quietly and eschews political theater in favor of a focus on the kind of parliamentary minutiae that improve the lives of his voters — things like overlooked clauses in land reform bills. He attends protests that are usually not covered by TV cameras and does not give fiery quotes to reporters. An advocate for the idea that Arabs and Jews can live together in Israel, he has received little public notice in a political system increasingly dominated by extreme voices.

In a restaurant near a gas station outside the village of Tur’an this week, Swaid, in a tan jacket and a tie, embraced the owners and waiters, whom he knew by name. The green hills of Lower Galilee were visible out the window.

Swaid was born in 1955, seven years later after his family’s exodus and return in 1948. He grew up with the events of that war hovering over the village, just as violence and loss haunted the rest of the Arab and Jewish citizens of the new country in which the village found itself.

“I know that every kid in Eilaboun knows exactly what happened in 1948,” Swaid said.

“But I also know that the message of the parents of Eilaboun to their children, along with telling them the story, is to reconcile, to look for a good life and peace and not to dwell in hatred. That’s how I was raised.”

His Christian village in Galilee, Swaid said, 'started from scratch after 1948' (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)
His Christian village in Galilee, Swaid said, ‘started from scratch after 1948’ (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)

One fifth of Israel’s nearly 8 million citizens are Arab — those who remained behind in 1948 and their descendants. They suffer from disparities in income and government funding and have an unemployment rate twice that of the rest of the country. More than 50 percent live under the poverty line.

The integration of these Israelis is one of the country’s most pressing challenges, complicated by the fact that Israel’s Arabs see themselves to varying degrees as intrinsically linked to Israel’s Arab enemies. The challenge has been neglected. Instead, Israel’s Arabs have increasingly come to be used by some rightist politicians as an easy target for ethnic baiting, as targets for a leering “loyalty” campaign that serves to diminish any possibility of them identifying with the country supposedly demanding their loyalty, and as pawns in an attempt to play on the fears of the Jewish majority to garner votes for the right.

The pioneer of the method was Israel’s recently resigned foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, who made the perceived disloyalty of Israeli Arabs a central part of his party’s campaign in the last election.

The rising forces in the Israeli political system, Swaid said, pose ‘threats to the very elements of democratic life’

Liberman, who now has joined forces with Likud, has been quiet on the subject during this campaign. Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party and the rising force on the right, is on record as explicitly condemning the tactic. The banner has instead been taken up by a small faction calling itself “Otzma Leyisrael,” or “Strength for Israel,” populated by extremist settlers and Kahanist acolytes like the current MK Michael Ben-Ari.

Politicians like Ben-Ari and Zoabi, the controversial Arab lawmaker, play agreed-upon roles in this political theater: Ben Ari gets the unabashed Palestinian nationalist he needs as a foil, and Zoabi gets to portray herself as a martyr. They both benefit. The losers are Zoabi’s constituents and the fragile and complicated social fabric of Israel.

A drive spearheaded by Likud MKs recently got a Knesset committee to ban Zoabi from running in the upcoming election, but her candidacy was restored when she appealed to the Supreme Court.

Swaid would not openly criticize Zoabi, but said she was playing into the hands of her opponents.

“I don’t say that Hanin Zoabi is extremist,” Swaid said. “I say to all of our members of the Knesset not to be vulnerable to these politicians because they are just waiting for us in the corner, to catch anything we might do in order to use it and exploit it against us.”

Being targeted by the right is actually a boon for an Arab politician, he said: “If an extremist Jewish party asks to disqualify me, this does wonders for my support. So all Arab parties like to be targeted, because they know they will eventually go to the High Court and will be able to run, and then they can go to their voters and say, ‘We won the fight against this Zionist intrigue.’”

Because Hadash sees one of its key roles as safeguarding the place of Arabs in Israel’s democracy, Swaid said, it steers clear: “We as a responsible party cannot be part of this game.”

Polls ahead of this election show not that more Israelis are voting for the right — the size of the right-wing bloc is predicted to remain more or less the same — but that the right itself has moved to more extreme positions. Likud, Israel’s ruling party, now includes Moshe Feiglin, for example, who has suggested in the past that Arabs should be barred from voting in national elections. Defenders of freedom of speech and the rule of law, like Benny Begin — whom Swaid describes as a friend, and who visited Swaid’s home after his father died last year — were removed from realistic spots on the party’s list.

The Arab parties are watching this unfold with alarm.

“I believe that what happened in Israeli politics is a kind of transformation — the extreme right became the mainstream, and the most extreme people are sitting at the center of Israeli politics,” he said. “We are very concerned about the results of this election.”

It is no longer impossible to imagine a bill limiting the right to vote to army veterans, he said, or to envision other laws seeking to further undermine the position of Arabs in Israel. “We are concerned about a majority consisting of the right-wing bloc enacting legislation directed against the Arab population,” he said. That’s why his party’s activists are working “day and night” to get their people to vote, hoping to reverse a trend that has seen Arab participation in national elections drop to around 50 percent.

The rising forces in the Israeli political system, he said, pose “threats to the very elements of democratic life.”

“Hadash,” a Hebrew word meaning “new,” is an acronym for the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. In Arabic it is generally known as al-Jabha, or “the Front.” Founded in the 1970s and never more than a small faction on the non-Zionist left of the Israeli political system, the party is unique for its emphasis on Jewish-Arab cooperation. Party leaders were among the first to promote a two-state solution on the 1967 lines, long before the Oslo Accords of the 1990s made that idea mainstream.

The party draws its support mainly from middle class and secular Arabs, many of them from the north and a substantial number of them Christian. The United Arab List, which is associated with the Islamic movement, gets the bulk of the religious votes, and Balad, Zoabi’s party, gets support from those of a more belligerent Arab nationalist disposition. (Balad’s former leader, Azmi Bishara, fled the country after police found evidence he had collaborated with Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon war.) Together, the Arab parties currently have 10 seats in Knesset and are expected to retain their strength on election day, January 22.

In the last election, Hadash also won about 8,000 Jewish votes, largely thanks to the activities of the popular Jewish lawmaker Dov Khenin, a leading environmentalist and progressive activist. Some of the field organizers of Israel’s 2011 social protest movement have also joined the party, though the two most prominent activists who entered politics chose to run with Labor.

The core ideology of Hadash, Swaid said, is the “Jewish-Arab struggle for peace and equality.”

“We address inequalities, the unjust distribution of wealth among rich and poor. This is what makes Hadash a comprehensive, inter-ethnic party,” he said.

Hadash, said Swaid (in blue scarf), is a 'comprehensive, inter-ethnic party' (Courtesy of Hanna Swaid)
The Israeli right, said Swaid (in blue scarf), is ‘waiting for us in the corner, to catch anything we might do in order to use it and exploit it against us’ (photo credit: Courtesy Hanna Swaid)

Swaid, a Catholic, graduated from a high school established by Protestant missionaries in Eilaboun — now one of the Arab Christian schools that regularly assume places at the top of Israel’s achievement standings. His three children graduated from the same school: Forat, a surgical resident, Reem, a social worker, and Layla, who is studying law.

Swaid began his political career in 1993 as mayor of Eilaboun, a post he held for 10 years. At the same time, he founded the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, which targeted the planning practices that conceal some of the less obvious gaps afflicting the Arab minority. Only 2.4 percent of the country’s industrial zones are attached to Arab towns, for example, though Arabs make up 20 percent of the population, a lack that affects employment and the tax base of the often insolvent Arab municipalities.

His planning background has served him well in Knesset. Swaid played an important role in blocking the government’s land reform bill in 2009, which drew fierce opposition across the political spectrum as an attempt to allow the privatization of a public resource. When the government sponsored another bill meant to streamline approval for construction, Swaid noticed that the way the bill was phrased would have meant no Arab town would have been able to take advantage of it. (He believes the mistake was inadvertent.) He addressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, and the prime minister had the bill amended.

Swaid seems to have made a decision to focus more on issues of concern to his constituents than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also professes to have little optimism about the possibility of a peace accord anytime soon.

‘I’m counting on the kind of coexistence that comes with time’

He did say, however, that in thinking about a final settlement he brings his own perspective as an Arab citizen of Israel: He would like to see Jewish settlers remain behind in a future Palestinian state, seeing this as a mirror of his own experience.

“I support the Jewish settlers staying there — I say, live in your homeland, but you don’t have to drag Israeli sovereignty to every hill you live on,” he said. “I live in my homeland under a different sovereignty, and I’m happy.”

Swaid does find reason for optimism in the power of everyday life to force people to get along — a view more easily comprehensible from his vantage point in Galilee, where Jews and Arabs have hammered out a kind of imperfect but genuine coexistence, than from the politically charged precincts of Jerusalem or from parts of the country where Jews and Arabs don’t mix at all.

He pointed to Upper Nazareth, a Jewish town built in the 1950s to dominate old Arab Nazareth as part of an effort to strengthen Jewish sovereignty over the still heavily Arab north. Over the years, more and more Arabs from Nazareth have been moving in, turning Upper Nazareth into an ethnically mixed town and turning the plans of its founders upside down.

“I’m counting on the kind of coexistence that comes with time,” Swaid said. He described visiting old Nazareth on a recent Saturday and seeing the Arab markets full of Jewish shoppers and visitors.

“You see this and you feel — this is the true life,” he said.


This is the sixth and last in a series of profiles of political players leading up to Israel’s national election on January 22. Previous installments featured the renegade rabbi Haim Amsalemretired general Elazar SternAyelet Shaked, a secular candidate in the religious party Jewish Home; Omer Barlev, a former commando and hi-tech entrepreneur; and Danny Danon, a rising force in Likud. 

Find Matti Friedman on Twitter and Facebook.

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