Palestinians: ‘We Want Our Own Knesset!’

Knesset building

Many Palestinians dream of the day they, too, will have a Knesset, a true parliament, where leaders are held accountable. For now, it’s just a pipe dream.
By Khaled abu Toameh. This article first appeared in The Gatestone Institute

What do Hanin Zoabi and Najat Abu Bakr have in common?

Both women are outspoken members of parliament — Zoabi in Israel and Abu Bakr in the Palestinian territories.

Zoabi, who hails from Nazareth, is a citizen of Israel. Abu Bakr, from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) city of Nablus (Shechem), is an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the parliament that has been effectively paralyzed since 2007, when Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority (PA) from the Gaza Strip.

But outspoken participation in parliaments is pretty much where the similarities end.

Zoabi, who resides inside Israel, lives a rather different life from her colleague, Abu Bakr, who is a Palestinian citizen.

Zoabi, the Israeli member of parliament, is a provocateur of long standing who regularly enrages the Jewish-Israeli public. She joined a flotilla “aid” convoy to the Gaza Strip — a move that left many Israelis furious.

On other occasions, her statements have also been interpreted as a show of solidarity with Israel’s enemies. More recently, she received a light sentence after signing a plea-bargain admitting she had insulted an Arab working for the Israel Police.

Hanin Zoabi and Najat Abu Bakr

Hanin Zoabi (left) and Najat Abu Bakr (right) are outspoken members of parliament – Zoabi in Israel and Abu Bakr in the Palestinian territories. That is pretty much where the similarities end.

Zoabi was back in the headlines again last month — along with two other Arab members of Israel’s Knesset, Jamal Zahalka and Basel Ghattas — for meeting with families of Palestinians who had carried out terror attacks against Israelis.

By all accounts, for that performance she and the other two Knesset members received a mere “slap on the wrist:” they were suspended from attending parliamentary committee meetings for a few months.

Even though Zoabi’s behavior and rhetoric are thoroughly abhorrent to many Israelis, including some of Israel’s Arab citizens, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, along with other Israelis, came out against expelling her and some other Joint Arab List colleagues from the Knesset.

“We cannot allow the Knesset, whose representatives are chosen by the public, to independently overturn the public’s choice,” Rivlin said, referring to proposed legislation that would allow Knesset members to vote out their colleagues who express support for terrorism.

But let us return to the question: How are Haneen Zoabi and Najat Abu Bakr, our two female parliamentarians, each doing?

While Zoabi, an Arab Muslim citizen of Israel, carries out her duties — and lives her life — freely, Abu Bakr has been forced to seek refuge within the Palestinian Legislative Council building in Ramallah.

In short, the two women are living in different worlds.

Mahmoud Abbas

PA head Mahmoud Abbas ordered Abu Bakr’s arrest for blowing the whistle on the financial corruption of a senior cabinet minister and her support of employee rights. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Since last week, when PA President Mahmoud Abbas ordered her arrest, Abu Bakr has been holed up inside the PA parliament building. Her crime: blowing the whistle on the financial corruption of a cabinet minister who is closely associated with Abbas.

Her claim is that the minister has been privately selling water to Palestinians and has illegally taken more than $200,000 from the Palestinian budget.

But that is not her only alleged crime. A further one concerns her public support for a teacher’s strike in the West Bank. The strike has seriously embarrassed Abbas and the PA leadership. Abbas has ordered scores of striking teachers arrested and has deployed hundreds of policemen at checkpoints to foil a protest organized by the teachers, who are demanding higher salaries and better conditions.

Apparently, Abu Bakr forgot that she is a member of the Palestinian parliament and not the Israeli one. She and her colleagues have no right to criticize Abbas or any senior official in Ramallah. Such criticism is considered an “insult” to top officials and even an act of treason.

PA Parliamentarians vs. Arab Members of Knesset

Members of the PA’s Parliament enjoy none of the rights enjoyed by Arab members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Parliamentary immunity, for instance, means that Zoabi and her colleagues cannot be detained or summoned for interrogation by the authorities.

In truth, there is no life in the Palestinian parliament. It has been paralyzed, thanks to the PA and strife with Hamas, and mostly functions as the butt of Palestinian jokes.

But the absence of an effective parliament suits Abbas and his government just fine. No parliament means no one to hold them accountable.

Meanwhile Abu Bakr, the MP who dares to open her mouth against the president or a top-echelon PA official, is grabbed by the long arm of the Palestinian security forces.

joint arab list

Joint Arab List members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R) and Basel Ghattas. Why are they remaining silent about the harassment of their fellow parliamentarian in Ramallah? (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Abu Bakr is now a fugitive. Monday was the sixth day she has been huddling in the parliament building. She has refused to leave the building or report for interrogation, and is demanding that Abbas cancel the arrest warrant issued against her.

Where is comrade Zoabi now? The Joint Arab List in Israel has been conspicuously silent about the harassment of their fellow member of parliament in Ramallah.

What a different picture we would have seen had Abu Bakr been delayed at an IDF checkpoint for 15 minutes. In less time than that, Zoabi would have strung Israel up for violating the rights of a parliament member in the Palestinian territories.

And so we have two legislators. One is forced to seek shelter within her own parliament for fear of being arrested by the Palestinian security forces. The other receives all the rights and privileges enjoyed by her fellow Arabs inside Israel – in spite of her immensely provocative behavior.

That is the difference between a law-abiding country and the PA, which has been functioning for many years as a mafia.

Najat Abu Bakr and many Palestinians dream of the day they, too, will have a Knesset, a true parliament, where leaders are held accountable. For now – and for the foreseeable future – that day is just a pipe dream.

Zoabi and her fellow Arab citizens of Israel will not be packing their bags and heading for Ramallah anytime soon, however. It seems that another Arab dictatorship is not their idea of prime real estate.

The author, an Arab Muslim, is a veteran award-winning journalist who has been covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

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