Arab Israeli MP determined her voice will be heard
Energetic campaigner … Haneen Zoabi is trying to persuade the Arab community it is worth voting. Photo: AFP
HANEEN ZOABI paces the floor of her office in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, a small bundle of energy who faces the almost impossible task of persuading a disillusioned and demoralised Arab electorate to vote in elections on Tuesday.
Poll after poll has predicted that turnout among the 800,000 Arab citizens of Israel eligible to vote could be less than 50 per cent, compared with about 65 per cent for the Jewish population.
The first woman to represent an Arab party in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, Ms Zoabi understands why people from her community may be unwilling to vote: ''Apathy, disappointment, [the idea that] we will change nothing,'' she said.
But Ms Zoabi, who is in the winnable No.2 position on the Balad Party's list, has no time for the idea that ''the Knesset is no place for an Arab''.
''A boycott now would be an act of weakness, not an act of active struggle. We need to develop another political struggle, for example, civil disobedience, while we are also using our voice inside the Knesset,'' she said.
The 43-year-old has been labelled a terrorist for her participation in a flotilla that aimed to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010. Nine people were killed when Israeli commandos stormed the flotilla's lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, and since then the campaign against her has been relentless.
Her parliamentary privileges were withdrawn, although efforts to bring criminal charges against her failed. So, too, did the Central Elections Committee's disqualification of Ms Zoabi last month as a candidate in these elections. On December 30 Israel's Supreme Court overturned the ban.
A lack of housing, overcrowded schools and discrimination in all walks of life dominate the lives of those she represents.
''It is not just racism that we face; we face a kind of society which has a lot of hatred towards the Palestinians, a lot of ideological fear,'' Ms Zoabi said.
Soon after our interview, news broke that the Upper Nazareth mayor, Shimon Gapso, had turned down an appeal from a human rights organisation to set up an Arab school in the city.
Although about 20 per cent of Upper Nazareth's 52,000 residents are Arabs, it has no Arab school and 1900 students must travel to schools outside the city for their education, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
''Upper Nazareth was founded to make the Galilee [region] Jewish and [we] must preserve this role,'' Mr Gapso said.
Ms Zoabi said the Knesset passed a raft of undemocratic laws in its last four-year term, including the 2011 Admissions Committee Law, which allows communities in Israel built on state land to reject applicants who ''do not suit the lifestyle and social fabric of the community''.
It effectively denied Arab citizens the right to live on most of the land in Israel, she said.
She acknowledged there were differences between South Africa and Israel, but added: ''If the definition of apartheid is to preserve privileges for one people at the expense of another people, in terms of land, resources, citizenship laws, then this is apartheid.''
Arabs make up 20 per cent of Israel's population of 7.8 million, and the three Arab-led parties - Raam-Taal, Balad and Hadash - won 11 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the 2009 election.
Analysts say if Arabs voted at the same levels as Jews, representation in the Knesset would lift to 20 seats, while if the three parties combined, they might win as many as 17 seats.
But the latest polls indicate their support remains steady at 11 seats - Balad with three and four each for Raam-Taal and Hadash.
Several Israeli newspapers have run opinion pieces calling on Arabs to vote, while the left-leaning Haaretz went a step further with an editorial in Arabic which read: ''The Arab citizenry must get out and vote for peace, for equality and for democracy.''