The National – 16 June 2010
The letter that arrived in Ahmed Tibi’s in-tray last week warned him he had only “180 days to live” and that his death would be “cruel and accompanied by terrible suffering and agony”.
The parliamentarian’s offence, said a New York-based group calling itself Pulsa Denura, was his “poisonous stance against Israel and Zionism”.
Mr Tibi said the group’s name alone was cause for alarm. Pulsa Denura is an ancient rabbinical death curse reported to have been invoked against Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, shortly before his assassination by a right-wing extremist in 1995.
Although Mr Tibi, like the other nine MPs from Arab parties, is used to hate mail, the avalanche of death threats received by the parliamentarians over the past two weeks is, they say, extraordinary in both quantity and vitriol.
“The incitement is non-stop, in the street and in the parliament. MPs from the Right must be held accountable for any harm that occurs to me or my colleagues,” he said. “We are facing times like never before.”
The immediate cause of the threats – and the recipient of most of them – is Haneen Zoubi, the only Arab woman to serve in the Israeli parliament, who made headlines by joining the flotilla of aid ships trying to break the siege of Gaza on May 31.
Her account of Israel’s commando raid, in which nine Turkish activists were killed and dozens of passengers wounded, has outraged government and defence officials, the media and the Jewish public by contradicting the official version that Israeli forces were attacked by the activists.
Ms Zoubi has said the commandos opened fire before setting foot on her ship, and that several passengers were shot in the head from close range and others left to bleed to death. In parliament, she incensed Jewish MPs by demanding an international inquiry and the return of photographic and video evidence taken from passengers.
Ms Zoubi was the subject of a popular Hebrew Facebook campaign, since removed, calling for her execution. It featured a cartoon image of her with crosshairs on her forehead as she waved a Palestinian flag with a bloody Star of David at its centre.
Shada Zoubi, her assistant, said the MP was receiving hundreds of hate mail letters and telephone calls each day, far more, she added, than were sent to her previous boss, Azmi Bishara, an Arab politician widely reviled by Israeli Jews who was forced into exile, accused of treason, in 2007.
Another party official, Tarek Berekdar, said that though threats in the past had usually been sent anonymously, they now often came signed. “Hate has become mainstream,” he said. A grocer was arrested last week after he posted a comment on Facebook offering a year’s free supplies to anyone who killed the MP.
Aside from the public threats, Israel’s security services have told party officials they are aware of more than a dozen concrete plots to kill Ms Zoubi.
In an unprecedented move, she and two other MPs, Mr Tibi and Taleb al Sana, have been issued with bodyguards by the sergeant-at-arms in the Knesset in co-ordination with the Shin Bet. In Ms Zoubi’s case, she is being protected inside the parliament building, too. “What does that say about the threat posed by my fellow MPs?” she said.
The hate mail being sent to the MPs, according to analysts, reflects a rapidly darkening mood in Israel against the Palestinian minority.
“There has been an atmosphere of incitement against the Arab community in general and especially against its leaders since [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] right-wing government was formed a year ago,” said Yousef Jabareen, the head of the Dirasat policy centre in Nazareth. “But in the past few days the incitement has peaked.”
He blamed much of the hostility on unprecedented scenes in parliament as Ms Zoubi made a statement shortly after the flotilla attack. She was harangued by Jewish MPs from all the main parties with calls of “traitor” and “terrorist”, and several MPs appeared to try to physically attack her.
Ms Zoubi later said: “It was so hostile in the chamber that, had MPs been allowed to carry guns, I am sure someone would have shot me.”
Mr Jabareen said: “Watching those scenes, ordinary people would have understood that it is fine to treat the Arab MPs as the enemy because that’s exactly how they are treated in the parliament.”
Adel Manna, a historian at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, said relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and Palestinian Arab minority had been deteriorating for years but the process was intensifying.
“When Israel feels the world is against it, it becomes much more intolerant of criticism from inside the country, from the Arab minority, especially. Dissent is seen as a strategic danger.”
Mr Manna said that Israel’s isolation since the attack on Gaza 18 months ago and the international reaction to its lethal raid on the flotilla had resulted in increasing efforts to “crush all criticism by frightening Arab society and silencing its leadership”.
That included, he said, the jailing of two civil society leaders on spying charges and the repeated arrests of Sheikh Raed Salah, a spiritual leader, as well as the atmosphere of incitement against the MPs.
Since Mr Netanyahu’s coalition took office, some 23 bills have been submitted to parliament that would deepen discrimination against the Arab minority and its leaders, including a spate of “loyalty laws”.