Israeli Arab Politics

Last November, just days after lethal attacks in Paris by ISIS, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu outlawed the northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel. He compared the group, which is tied to the Muslim Brothers, to ISIS in an attempt to frame the ban as part of the global war on terror. But in reality, the Israeli government’s action was long in the making and driven by considerations of local power politics.

Tens of thousands of visitors have come to Sheikh Raed Salah’s protest tent in the past three weeks, since Netanyahu declared his Islamic Movement an “illegal organisation”. In an interview, Salah calls the move “a declaration of war not just against our movement but against Islam and against the whole Palestinian community [in Israel]. Everyone feels targeted.”

With dismaying predictability, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time in exploiting the massacre in Paris by outlawing the Islamic Movement, a popular party among Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Netanyahu justified the decision by conflating the movement with Hamas and ISIL, even though the Islamic Movement rejects violence and operates entirely within Israeli law.

The decision by the Israeli government to outlaw the country’s main Islamic Movement marks a dangerous turning point in Israel’s relations with its large Palestinian minority. The move effectively drives underground a religious, political and social movement representing the views of a sizeable portion of Israel’s 1.6 million Palestinian citizens.

Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a crackdown on Palestinian political leaders in Israel, blaming them for the current unrest, in what appeared to be an attempt to bolster his severely dented image as ‘Mr Security’. After a security cabinet meeting, Netanyahu directed officials to assemble the evidence to make possible the outlawing of the northern wing of the Islamic movement.

Tired, confused, desperate and paranoid are just a few of the epithets that have been hurled at Netanyahu in the last days of the campaign. Warning that the whole of the right will fall with him, if he is defeated, Netanyahu ascribed his difficulties not to personal failings but to a sinister plot by “foreign groups”. There was “a huge, worldwide effort to topple the Likud”, he warned.

The thrust of the right’s election campaign suggests a different reading of Avigdor Lieberman’s move to raise the threshold last year. Then, it was widely assumed he was trying to bar the Arab parties from parliament. Now it seems as if he may have had a more sinister goal in mind. In creating the Joint List, the Arab parties may – rather than foiling the right’s plan – have stepped into its trap.

The newly launched Joint List is facing a series of crises. Not least, if the bloc breaks up after polling day, as looks likely, it will suggest to the Arab public that it was simply an opportunistic vehicle for bypassing the obstacle of a raised Knesset threshold. Rather than reversing – as intended – the long-term decline in turnout among Palestinian voters, the list’s failure could dramatically accelerate it.

Israel’s Central Elections Committee on Thursday barred Haneen Zoabi, one of the most prominent Arab politicians in Israel, from running for the parliament in next month’s general election. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party had submitted a 50-page dossier of quotes it claimed proved Zoabi supported armed struggle by Israel’s enemies and opposed Israel’s character as a Jewish and democratic state.

Israel’s large Palestinian Arab minority is facing the most crucial, and possibly most dangerous, general election in its history, according to analysts. Both the survival of Arab political parties in the Israeli parliament and the status of Palestinian citizens – who make up one in five of the population – inside a Jewish state are at stake. Unless they can forge alliances, the three small Arab parties in the current Knesset may fail to win a single seat between them.

The right needs a credible enemy, one that can be feared and that keeps the Jewish tribe from feuding too viciously. The occasional rocket from Gaza hardly qualifies. The role is instead being assigned to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They and Palestinians in Jerusalem are now likely to take centre stage in any future election campaign.

The Israeli parliament voted overwhelmingly last week to suspend Haneen Zoabi, a legislator representing the state’s large Palestinian minority, for six months as a campaign to silence political dissent intensified. But Zoabi is not the only Palestinian representative in the firing line. The Knesset raised the threshold for election to the parliament, in what has been widely interpreted as an attempt to exclude all three small parties representing the Palestinian minority.

There are no wrecked houses, no crushed or blasted bodies in Umm al-Fahm. But Israel is waging a campaign against this town of 45,000 inhabitants and its leading son, Sheikh Raed Salah, closely related to its current assault on Gaza. Salah, leader of the northern Islamic Movement, expects Israel’s war on Hamas to come knocking at his door next.

Israel is preparing to shut down the most popular Islamic party among its large Palestinian minority, apparently hoping to exploit the tide of repression against the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. “Outlawing the Islamic Movement is intended to send a clear message to all Palestinians that Israel will not tolerate political Islam,” said Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at Haifa University.

Shortly before polling day in Israel, the Arab League issued a statement urging Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the country’s population, to turn out en masse to vote. The call revealed a profound, if by now well-established, misunderstanding of Israeli politics. It assumed that the Israeli polity can be divided neatly into left and right wings, and that the differences between the two correspond primarily to relative willingness to make concessions to advance the cause of peace.

This election has been a personal blow to Netanyahu, but not to the right. Netanyahu misread the public mood, but not on the central issues that should define the left-right divide in Israel: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decades of belligerent Israeli occupation. Far from a collapse of the right, the election demonstrated that the right is continuing to push the center of political gravity ever further rightwards.

As Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s Palestinian minority, gears up for the country’s general election next week, the most common poster in the city features three far-right leaders noted for their virulently anti-Arab views. Paid for by one of the largest Palestinian parties, the posters are intended to mobilize the country’s Palestinian citizens to vote. They pose a blunt question in Arabic: “Who are you leaving it [the Israeli parliament] to?”

Interview with Awad Abdel Fattah: ‘The PA is still using the discussion about one state as a way to frighten Israelis. The demand for justice and equality should not be used as a scare tactic: in fact, we should be making the argument that one state would be good for Israelis too.’

Jewish far-right groups responsible for a series of arson attacks on West Bank mosques over the past year broke dangerous ground last week when they turned their attention for the first time to holy places inside Israel. A mosque was torched, followed days later by an attack on Muslim and Christian graves. In each case the settlers left their calling card – the words “Price tag”, indicating an act of revenge – scrawled on their handiwork.

Israeli police injured two Arab legislators on Wednesday in violent clashes provoked by Jewish right-wing extremists staging a march through the northern Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. Haneen Zoabi, a parliament member who has become a national hate figure in Israel and received hundreds of death threats since her participation in an aid flotilla to Gaza in the summer, was among those hurt. Zoabi reported being hit in the back and neck by rubber bullets as she fled the area.

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