Marginalisation in Israel's Knesset

Arab members of the Knesset face what looks like the criminalisation of minority representation.

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".

 

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Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue