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Newly strengthened in Knesset, Arab women seek to expand their voice

Latest election doubled female lawmakers in Joint List; now they speak of plans to work for all of society, with one hijab wearing MK saying: ‘Do not make the veil a barrier’

Iman Khatib-Yassin (center), an Arab Israeli newly elected to the Knesset, speaks to supporters in the northern town of Kafr Kanna on March 4, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Iman Khatib-Yassin (center), an Arab Israeli newly elected to the Knesset, speaks to supporters in the northern town of Kafr Kanna on March 4, 2020 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Newly elected MK Iman Khatib-Yassin, greeting supporters in Nazareth, shook hands with women but tapped her heart with her right hand for men.

The gestures signaled the Muslim identity of the woman who is about to become Israel’s first hijab-wearing MK and part of a group of Arab women poised to expand their voice in Israel’s male-dominated politics.

All major parties in the Jewish state are currently led by men, with women making up only 25 percent of lawmakers in the Knesset.

But in the March 2 elections, one party managed to double its female representation, albeit from a low base: The predominantly Arab Joint List won 15 of the Knesset’s 120-seats, the alliance’s best-ever performance and up from 13 during stalemate elections last September.

The Joint List also counts four women among its incoming MKs, up from two in September.

Khatib-Yassin will be part of the Knesset’s largest ever contingent of Arab women, including three Joint List colleagues and a Druze woman from the centrist Blue and White party.

The Joint List draws most of its support from Israel’s roughly 20-percent Arab minority.

Israel’s Arabs complain of discrimination and accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of treating them as second-class citizens. Netanyahu counters that his government has invested more in Arab neighborhoods than any in the history of the Jewish state.

The Joint List’s elected women told AFP that while they will focus on their constituent’s concerns, they also care about wider issues in Israeli society.

Ahmad Tibi (center) and colleagues from the Joint List arrive for talks with representatives of the Blue and White party, at the Knesset on March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

“Do not make the veil a barrier. Look at the capabilities of the veil’s wearer — their ethics, work, skills and attitudes,” said Khatib-Yassin, a 54-year-old mother of four.

There are “religious Jewish women in the Knesset,” she added. “We didn’t hear any comment about them. We must deal with people first as human beings.”

Khatib-Yassin studied social services at Tel Aviv University, specializing in women’s support. In parliament, she wants to tackle issues ranging from violence in Arab neighborhoods to poverty and housing.

In the Arab population, she said, “Sixty-four percent of women are excluded from work, not because they don’t want to work but due to conditions and lack of travel options.”

Inflexible hours mean Arab women often need to leave for work before their children go to school, she said. “These issues must be put on the table at the Knesset.”

MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint (Arab) List speaks at the party’s Hebrew-language campaign launch in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The new parliament will be sworn in next week but some fear it will last only a few months. No bloc has a 61-seat majority, a repeat of inconclusive polls from the April and September 2019 elections. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won 36 seats and controls a total of 58, counting its allies.

Netanyahu’s main rival Benny Gantz, who heads Blue and White, needs the Joint List’s support to even consider forming a government. The Joint List’s head Ayman Odeh has indicated he could back Gantz under certain conditions.

Aida Touma-Sliman, a Christian Arab-Israeli reelected on March 2, is on the Joint List’s four-person team negotiating with Gantz.

A women’s activist before entering parliament in 2015, Touma-Sliman stressed that the Joint List’s incoming female MKs “are from all walks of life and are capable and serious representatives of the whole of society.”

The Joint List is an alliance of parties representing both Muslim and Christian Arab Israelis, as well as some Jewish leftists. Though it has been broadly painted by the Israeli right as a party of “terror supporters” for its members’ backing of Palestinians and sometimes failure to condemn terror attacks, its politics are more complex, with MKs ranging from Islamists to communists.

One member, Sundus Salih, is at 34 about to become Israel’s youngest lawmaker. The mother of three is from Al-Mashhad town near Nazareth and has a masters in science and technology.

“There are differences between the [List’s] parties… but we four women unite and agree on most things,” Salih told AFP. “As a mother and a teacher I am worried by the proliferation of violence and guns.”

The fourth member of the quartet almost didn’t make it on the ballot.

Heba Yazbak, also from Nazareth, was blocked as a candidate by the Central Elections Committee over Facebook posts allegedly supporting terrorism. She denied the charges and was cleared to run by the Supreme Court. Now she is determined to use her Knesset seat to fight for Arab rights.

Heba Yazbak at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem for a hearing on whether to disqualify the Ra’am-Balad party from running in the general elections, March 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We intend to translate our great electoral strength into political positions that reinforce our position as Arabs in this country and confront the right-wing and its agendas,” she told AFP.

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