Haneen Zoabi has a big mouth. That is not unusual for a politician, especially one in Israel, where members of parliament are not hesitant to express their views even as they are being dragged out of the Knesset by ushers charged with enforcing decorum.
But Zoabi is unique. Not only is she the first Arab woman elected to the Israeli parliament on an Arab party’s list, but she has also been called “the most hated woman in Israel.”
And now she may be the first member of parliament to have a piece of legislation informally named after her, and not in a good way.
“The Zoabi bill” seeks to provide a mechanism to vote her out of parliament for allegedly voicing support for a terrorist organization.
“Do I look like a monster?” she asked, sitting down for a cup of coffee recently with a reporter in a restaurant filled with Jewish Israelis, where neighboring tables went quiet to eavesdrop on the answer.
“I am a threat not because I am a terrorist,” she said. “I am a threat because I am a liberal feminist democrat.”
To her supporters, Zoabi, 45, is a Palestinian lioness speaking truth to the Israeli establishment by asserting the rights of the 20 percent of Israel’s population who are Arab Muslims and Christians.
Her critics consider her a gadfly, or much worse.
Over the summer, her opponents say, she went too far.
In June, soon after three Jewish Israeli teenagers were abducted as they hitchhiked home from their religious schools in the occupied West Bank — but before it was known they had been killed — Zoabi told Radio Tel Aviv that she did not believe the kidnappers were terrorists.
“Is it strange that people living under occupation and living impossible lives, in a situation where Israel kidnaps new prisoners every day, is it strange that they kidnap?” she asked.
She continued, “They are not terrorists. Even if I do not agree with them, they are people who do not see any way to change their reality, and they are compelled to use these means, until Israel behaves a little, until Israel’s society and Israeli citizens behave a little, until they look at the suffering and feel the suffering of others.”
Zoabi added later that the Palestinians in the West Bank should launch a “popular uprising” and “impose a siege on Israel instead of negotiating with it.”
After her remarks, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended her for six months. She was allowed to vote on legislation, but that was all. She was barred from attending committee meetings, addressing the floor or introducing her own bills.
On Wednesday, the Israeli High Court rejected her petition to overturn her suspension, which ends in January.
“I personally don’t understand how a person who declares that she believes in nonviolence can say that those who kidnap children are not terrorists,” said Justice Esther Hayut. “It’s black snow.”
After the ruling, Zoabi said the court had capitulated to political pressure and “the tyranny of an aggressive majority.”
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his support for the Zoabi bill, which would go much further than a suspension.
A member of parliament could be expelled from the Knesset if an absolute majority (61 of 120 members) found that the member supported any group or state in its war against Israel.
“I think she crossed the line and she continues to cross it,” said Danny Danon, a Knesset member and leader of Netanyahu’s Likud party. “She is becoming a role model for young Arabs inciting against Israel and supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.”
The goal of the legislation, Danon said, “is to make sure that she would not be able to come back to [the] Knesset.”
The bill was tabled following the crack-up of Netanyahu’s governing coalition this month and the dissolution of the Israeli parliament. Elections are scheduled for March 17, and the bill is likely to be revived.
Zoabi called the measure “insane.”
She said the legislation was designed not just to curtail her free speech, within and outside of the Knesset, but also as a warning to others.
“It is competition now. Who is more racist? Who hates the Palestinians more? Who can promise that the next Knesset will be cleansed of Arabs?” Zoabi said. “It is a competition — who hates Haneen Zoabi the most.”
There are plenty in the running.
One of the rising stars in Netanyahu’s Likud party, the parliamentarian Tzipi Hotovely, called Zoabi a collaborator with Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian militant group. Hotovely said her colleague’s citizenship should be rescinded.
Israel’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said at the time of Zoabi’s June remarks, “The fate of the kidnappers and the fate of Zoabi, who incites and encourages the terrorists, ought to be the same.”
In September, the two Hamas operatives suspected in the kidnapping and killing of the teenagers were killed in a gun battle with Israeli security forces in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Zoabi often calls her antagonists, including Netanyahu, “racists” and “fascists.”
A scion of a very old Palestinian family from the hills of Galilee, Zoabi is a Palestinian and an Arab Israeli citizen.
She said she does not need to apologize to anyone for asserting her right to speak out and to defend her constituency. “I am the original indigenous person,” she said. “I didn’t immigrate to Israel. I am from this land.”
Zoabi said she believes that Israel is intent on denying Israeli Arabs their full rights — and cites recent attempts to officially declare Israel a “Jewish state” as proof.
Drafts of the Jewish nationality bill, backed by Netanyahu, would elevate the importance of Jewish symbols, religious laws and anthems, downgrade Arabic from an official language, and place collective Jewish Israeli rights above the individual rights of minorities, such as the Arabs.
Netanyahu introduced the legislation saying, “There are many who are challenging Israel’s character as the national state of the Jewish people.” He added that not only do Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, but that within Israel, Arab citizens do, too.
Zoabi said, “Israel must decide between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. It can’t be both.”
She defended her right to criticize. “I am a politician. I have the right to talk politics.”
“I don’t regret anything I’ve said.”
She said that Israel should be home to Arabs and Jews but that they must be equal.
“I am evidence of the Israeli failure to tame the Palestinian,” she said.
Zoabi predicted that she will be reelected in March.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.