Arab members of Israel's Knesset (MKs) are accustomed to political marginalisation, as well receiving abuse and threats to their positions. Recently, however, there has been a further deterioration, as two elected representatives of the non-Jewish minority, Mohammed Barakeh and Said Naffaa, face criminal proceedings.
Barakeh is currently on trial for four separate charges, relating to incidents alleged to have taken place at separate public demonstrations between 2005 and 2007. Apart from protesting his innocence, the Palestinian MK claims that the process is politically motivated. Adalah, the legal advocacy group whose lawyers are representing him, agree -- they said that the indictment criminalised "legitimate political activities", and was an attempt "to harm the reputation and status of an Arab leader".
Hassan Jabareen, Adalah founder and attorney, described the kind of "friction" between Barakeh and police at the demonstrations as the sort of incidents "that happen at every protest". Barakeh himself has pointed out that "all the charges involve incidents that occurred during political protests" he attended as part of his "political responsibilities".
The Syria connection
While there are enough concerns about the trial to warrant the presence of an EU representative, Barakeh is not alone. MK Said Naffaa is also facing prosecution on charges related to a visit he made to Syria in 2007 -- for visiting an 'enemy state' without Interior Ministry authorisation, and while there, allegedly meeting with a senior official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Naffaa appealed to the Knesset for protection from these charges on the basis of his parliamentary immunity, saying that the indictment was an attempt to "target" him. The relevant committee, however, voted 9-2 to strip Naffaa of his immunity, and declined to hear testimony from legal experts.
That decision was greeted by one Knesset member with the suggestion that MK Naffaa and "his colleagues go to the Syrian parliament and work from there". Another MK from foreign minister Lieberman's party declared her intention "to initiate a bill stating that anyone found guilty of such a violation would have their citizenship immediately revoked and be sent back to live in the enemy state".
Naffaa's visit was as part of a group of almost 300 Druze clerics. Naffaa pointed out the double standards: "After the delegation I travelled with, a delegation of Christians went, and no one was prosecuted". He also cited "a number of visits by Jews to rabbis' graves in Iraq, religious visits by Muslims to Saudi Arabia and religious trips by Christians and Circassians".
There are other examples. At the end of last year, another MK, Taleb el-Sana, took part in a demonstration at the Gaza border, during which the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh addressed the crowd through the MK's mobile phone. In response, the internal security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, asked the attorney general "to file charges against MK El-Sana for supporting a terror organisation".
Other leaders of the Palestinians in Israel, outside the Knesset, have been targeted. The leader of the northern Islamic Movement, Raed Salah, has been convicted of assaulting a police officer (he is appealing), and in October was banned from entering Jerusalem for 30 days. Typically, the Palestinian minority in Israel feels that it is subject to a different standard to their Jewish fellow citizens.
Adalah's lawyer, Orna Kohn, has observed that while Jewish MKs are stripped of immunity for allegations of corruption or serious crimes, revoking immunity for political activities was "very rare". It's not just MKs; during Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip just over a year ago, over 800 Israeli citizens, the vast majority Palestinian, were arrested during protests.
A third of those arrested were under-18, with 255 individuals ultimately indicted. By contrast, the Knesset recently passed a bill, 51-9, pardoning those arrested while protesting the removal of Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005. These latest prosecutions are yet another indication of a disturbing trend in Israeli politics, particularly with regards to its Palestinian citizens, yet it has barely been covered by the western media.
Big Brother's watching you
These developments seem like the criminalisation of protest -- or even of minority representation itself. As the Balad MK, Hanin Zoabi, explained, taking away immunity "from the moves that actually set us apart from the Jewish MKs" -- for instance, visiting Arab countries -- means "you are in fact disqualifying our activity".
An editorial in Haaretz condemned the Barakeh and Naffaa prosecutions as "unwarranted, harmful" and smacking "of political persecution based on nationality". Charging Naffaa, the editorial continued, seems like a "warning" to Arab MKs "that the state is watching their actions closely", while the law that bars MKs visiting Arab countries "impedes their efforts to engage in public activity on behalf of their voters" and is specifically "discriminatory".
Meanwhile, the chair of the Knesset committee which lifted Naffaa's immunity was reported last month as saying that "Arab MKs are attempting to turn the Knesset into a platform for anti-Israel propaganda", and that therefore "a serious decision" had to be made "on whether or not these parties can continue to sit in the Israeli parliament, even while they operate against the country".
All this, in a country that claims to be the region's "only democracy".