The NS Interview: Haneen Zoabi

“I was not elected to keep silent or to sit at the table and clap” - Haneen Zoabi, Palestinian membe

What is it like being a Palestinian in Israel?
Israel did everything it could to make us forget our history: controlling education and the media, putting us in a ghetto, preventing us from having normal relations with the Arab world and visiting our families in Syria and Lebanon.

Are Arab members of parliament treated differently?
Of course. The state treats all Jews and Palestinians differently. Israel doesn't recognise us as the owners of this homeland. The theory is that we have equal civil rights, but the practice is very far from this.

Do you endorse a two-state solution?
The reality of Israel's actions shows us that it's unrealistic to have a real sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as the capital. The more realistic solution is one state with full national equality for both national groups.

Is the west right to refuse to engage with Hamas?
No one can tell the Palestinian people whom to choose as a government. Hamas is not a terrorist organisation. I don't think that Hamas has a clear political vision, but regardless of whether I disagree [with it], the international community cannot mediate neutrally if it starts to label the organisations of the Palestinians as illegitimate.

Why did you join the Gaza aid flotilla?
The natural question should be: "Why not?" I participated not just because I'm Palestinian, but because I believe in freedom, equality and justice. One and a half million people in the biggest prison in the world is not just an occupation, it is a humiliation.

Did you feel a duty to speak out?
I was not elected in order to keep silent or to sit at the table and clap.

Were you surprised by the violent response?
I wasn't surprised, but I didn't expect it to be so severe. This aggressive kind of reaction indicates a total breakdown of politics. They could not challenge our arguments politically, so they called us traitors and terrorists.

Do you have faith in the Israeli investigation into the flotilla raid?
No, none at all. Those accused of committing war crimes cannot investigate themselves. Bin­yamin Netanyahu [the Israeli prime minister] has said that this committee will show that Israel is a victim and that there were no violations. So is he already stating the results?

You've had death threats. Are you afraid?
Personally I am not afraid, but politically I am worried. After the vote in the Knesset when they stripped me of my parliamentary rights, two members - one from the coalition, one from the opposition - said: "Haneen, this is just the beginning, this is not the end - we don't want to see you in the Knesset." They mean not just Haneen, but everything I represent.

Will you be able to carry on working?
We didn't expect an easy struggle. I chose to be involved in politics because I was born in a racist context. I will continue using all the democratic tools that are available. I ask Israel not to push us into undesirable activities.

Are you against the very idea of Israel?
We do not want to throw Jews into the sea. We are not against Jews. We are against Israeli policies and the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.

How does the struggle in the Palestinian territories compare to your own in Israel?
This is the difference - as citizens of Israel, we are utilising all the tools that we have, but those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have given up resisting occupation.

What about the Palestinian Authority?
The PA seems more focused on building a state than ending the occupation. It's irrational; you can't negotiate borders while Palestinians are under siege and Israel is expanding settlements.

What is your hope for Arab citizens in Israel?
I have a vision of our rights as indigenous people. We didn't migrate to Israel; it is Israel that migrated to us.

You've been quoted as saying that it would be a good thing for Iran to have nuclear weapons.
That is inaccurate. It cannot be that someone who is struggling against oppression is calling for nuclear weapons. But if the world doesn't prevent Israel from having nuclear weapons, why does it prevent others?

What would you like to forget?
I think it is better not to forget. I want to learn from the mistakes and enjoy the positive memories, especially because I live in a context that is obsessed with making me forget.

Do you vote?
Of course I vote. I am a political representative.

Are we all doomed?
No. If you struggle for justice and human values, then this is enough reason to continue.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Nazareth
2001 Joins Balad (National Democratic Assembly), the Israeli Arab political party
2003 Co-founds and heads I'lam, an NGO exposing Israeli media bias
2009 Becomes first woman to be elected to parliament (Knesset) on an Arab party list
2010 Participates in the Gaza aid flotilla in May. On 13 July, the Knesset votes by 34-16 to strip her of three privileges, including the right to hold a diplomatic passport

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days