Remarks by MK Hanin Zoabi (Balad) agitating against Israel came under harsh opprobrium by Supreme Court justices Tuesday as the Balad party lawmaker appealed a Knesset decision to ban her from all parliamentary sessions for six months over inflammatory statements.
The discussion before a panel of five judges, headed by deputy chief justice Miriam Naor, quickly turned political and was punctuated by a tussle outside the courtroom between parliamentary aides and right-wing activists.
During the hearing, justices seemed unconvinced by the petitioners’ claim that Zoabi’s statements were merely expressions of “political” free speech and were therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the Ethics Committee.
The Knesset’s Ethics Committee decided in July to sanction Zoabi for an interview given to Tel Aviv Radio on June 12, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers south of Jerusalem.
Speaking before the fate of the three was known, Zoabi told interviewer Sharon Gal that she did not consider the kidnappers to be terrorists, but rather “people who see no other way to change their reality.”
She later clarified that she did not support kidnappings or other acts of violence, but only “civil resistance.”
In a separate article published on her party’s website, also weighed by the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, Zoabi called for “a siege” to be placed on Israel and for an end to peace talks and Palestinian security coordination with it.
The six-month ban is the most severe sanction ever placed on a Knesset member by the Ethics Committee for a statement.
“There is no precedent in comparative law, which I have examined, to this situation,” Justice Hanan Melcer said during the hearing. “Of all her statements, you must address her call ‘to place a siege on the state of Israel instead of negotiating with it.'”
Justice Miriam Naor challenged attorney Hassan Jabareen, director of the Israeli rights group Adalah, which represented Zoabi in the case, to produce “one case, in world parliaments, in which a similar statement was made by a parliamentarian.”
Even during the apartheid regime in South Africa, opined Justice Esther Hayut, a parliamentarian would never dare call for a boycott of the entire country.
“When a statement by a member of Knesset contradicts the minimal common denominator [in society] and says things that not only enrage sections of the public, but take a stand against the state … when one proposes to place a siege on the country; to stop security coordination with it; when one identifies with people who kidnap children; how can these statements be reconciled with the country’s most basic good?” she asked.
“I myself can’t understand how a person who claims to support nonviolence can argue that a child kidnapper is not a terrorist. It’s like ‘black snow,'” Hayut said.
The judges seemed in accord that Zoabi’s comments could not be considered legitimate political opinions, protected by parliamentary freedom of speech, but rather undermined the most basic principles of Israeli democracy.
“How will ‘the occupation’ end if we don’t negotiate?” wondered justice Elyakim Rubinstein.
Jabareen of Adalah argued that since Israel’s Attorney General decided not to investigate Zoabi for her remarks, and since some members of the Knesset’s Ethics Committee believed she should not be sanctioned over them, they could not be considered illegitimate speech. Even Jewish Zionist writers in Israel, he asserted, have called recently for international isolation of Israel and an end to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
A decision is expected shortly, but no time frame was given.
Following the hearing, a scuffle broke out between Arab parliamentary assistants from Zoabi’s party, Balad, and right-wing activists who shouted at her “terrorist” and “move to Syria.”
Speaking to the press, Zoabi said she was surprised by the political nature of the discussion, but hoped that the court finds in her favor. “Otherwise, the racists and bigots will eradicate any chance of peaceful coexistence in this country,” she said.