Arab Israeli Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Ahmad Tibi carries a sign in Arabic reading "Here is Negev" in protest at demolitions carried out by authorities in Arab neighbourhoods, in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2017
Arab Israeli Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Ahmad Tibi carries a sign in Arabic reading "Here is Negev" in protest at demolitions carried out by authorities in Arab neighbourhoods, in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2017 © Menahem KAHANA - AFP/File
Arab Israeli Knesset (Israeli parliament) member Ahmad Tibi carries a sign in Arabic reading
Majeda EL-BATSH
Last updated: February 15, 2017

For Arab MPs, Israeli parliament is harder than ever

Banner Icon It has never been easy being a lawmaker who identifies as Palestinian in the Israeli parliament, but today it is harder than ever, Arab Israeli MPs say.

In recent months they have seen their colleagues discuss banning the early morning Muslim call to prayer and vote to legalise the seizure of hundreds of acres of Palestinian land in the West Bank by Jewish settlers.

They have faced criticism and threats from fellow members of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, some of whom refuse to even speak to them.

Ahmed Tibi, a veteran lawmaker in his fifth term, said the situation in parliament is at its worst since he was first elected in 1999, with tensions whipped up by a "right-wing extremist" government.

"The Knesset is an extremist place. It's not an easy place to work."

The government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that came to power following elections in 2015 is widely considered the most right-wing in the country's history.

It strongly supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, and some members favour annexing parts of the West Bank.

The 2015 election also saw Arab Israeli parties form a common political front for the first time since the creation of Israel in 1948.

They founded the Joint Arab List, a coalition that ranges from Islamists to communists and even a Jewish parliamentarian.

With 13 MPs out of 120, it is now the third-largest parliamentary block, but is beset by internal divisions. Five more Arab Israeli parliamentarians belong to other parties.

'DISCRIMINATION'

Making up around 18 percent of Israel's population, Arab Israelis are descended from Palestinians who remained on their land after Israel was established.

They have full voting and legal rights but say the state systematically discriminates against them.

Tibi said the atmosphere in parliament is increasingly hostile, with some members even refusing to talk to others. He said tensions spiked during three wars with Palestinians in Gaza since 2008.

"When there's a war on, the Knesset is on fire -- it's full of racism and blatant aggression," Tibi said.

His Jewish colleagues "did not want to hear the Arab point of view, or even to hear Arabic," he told AFP.

In December, the chairman of Netanyahu's Likud party, David Bitan, said he would prefer if Arab Israelis did not vote, accusing them of "representing Palestinian interests" rather than those of the state of which they are citizens.

Tibi said he has been the target of calls for violence. Right-wing defence minister Avigdor Lieberman once said he should be put before a firing squad, he said.

"Every day he tells us that we are terrorists and enemies of the state."

Sometimes Arab MPs score points. Aida Touma, for example, broke a glass ceiling in 2015 when she became the first Arab to chair a standing committee in the Knesset.

"It means big challenges, as I belong to a parliamentary minority and a national minority within the state," she said.

But their colleague Basel Ghattas is now facing prosecution.

'UNPRECEDENTED'

Ghattas was accused of illegally bringing mobile phones to prisoners in an Israeli jail.

He partly lost his parliamentary immunity and was indicted after Zeev Elkin, a minister from Netanyahu's Likud party, gathered 72 parliamentary signatures demanding Ghattas be thrown out.

Israeli law says such a vote can be held if at least 70 members support it, but Ghattas is the first such case in Israel's history.

Adalah, an Arab Israeli rights group, said it was "unprecedented" and accused the attorney general of failing to give Ghattas the usual 30 days to prepare his defence before a hearing.

On Monday, Ghattas said in an open letter to MPs that he was being subjected to trial by media.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, told Israeli television the issue "should be conducted within the legal framework" and that Ghattas must be allowed to defend himself.

But despite the challenges, parliamentarian Abdallah Abu Maarouf said it is important that Arabs continue to represent their interests in parliament.

"We were living here before Israel was founded, but now we are 20 percent of the population," he said.

"As citizens, we have the legitimate right to work to change the policies of discrimination against Arabs in Israel," he said. "So we won't leave this platform."

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