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The Indiscriminate Compassion of Haneen Zoabi

Posted on Jul 13, 2014

    Israeli Member of the Knesset Haneen Zoabi responds to questions by host Rina Matzliach on Israel's "Meet the Press" on June 21. Photo by YouTube/Richard Silverstein

By Alexander Reed Kelly

This piece was prompted by Truthdig contributor Scott Tucker. Read his remarks on Zoabi’s significance here.

The overall context of Israeli action is that of occupation and terrorism. The overall context of Palestinian action is a legitimate struggle against occupation.

—Israeli Knesset member Haneen Zoabi

If you were held down by a pack of people and beaten mercilessly, would you think it fair if during and afterward, onlookers and those involved described what happened as a fight? Would you think you were justified in doing anything you could to protect yourself? Could the same characterization of aggression be applied to their assault and your fraught effort at self-defense? These are questions supporters of Palestinians, including Haneen Zoabi, the first female Arab Israeli to represent an Arab party in Israel’s legislature, desperately want international observers to consider as residents of the Gaza Strip move into a second week of deadly coordinated assaults. Israel’s Netanyahu government is raining upwards of hundreds of missiles a day upon the region of 1.8 million people, which is twice the size of Washington, D.C.. The targets are schools, mosques, houses and charities it says are bases of military operation.

The air campaign by the Israel Defense Forces, which had killed 159 Palestinians as of Saturday night—the majority of them civilians, medical sources say—comes after the abduction and slaying of three Israeli teenagers by unconfirmed attackers in the West Bank, a part of Palestinian territory into which Israeli settlers have encroached under the aegis of official policy for over four decades. The strikes also follow a steady barrage of rockets fired by Palestinian militants led by the Islamic group Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, into Israel’s populated areas, including the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Amnesty International recognized Israel’s decision to attack the population in general rather than the combatants among it as “collective punishment,” saying, “Justice will not be served by Israel seeking revenge by … committing other violations of Palestinians’ rights.”

No Israelis have been reported killed by rocket fire since the beginning of July, though a number have been confirmed as injured. But Israeli leaders intend to inflict maximum punishment. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said in the offensive’s early days, “The operation against Hamas has not ended. It will continue. We will continue to act against Hamas, to strike its people. At every opportunity and every place, the organization will pay a heavy price for its actions.”


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The standard response to the questions raised above from those whose sympathy extends only to Israel’s Netanyahu government was clearly put by White House press secretary Josh Earnest last week: “We strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza,” he told reporters. “No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.” This is an adequate summary of the conflict between the leaders of both areas only if it is ignored that the Israeli government, a well-organized, politically and militarily dominant, and internationally backed and funded organization, has been far more effective in recent decades at killing Palestinian civilians than the militant wing of its opponent’s divided leadership has been at killing Israelis—at a reported ratio of more than 5 to 1. Substitute “Palestine” for “Israel” and Earnest’s assessment would be significantly more credible.

This is not to say, Zoabi insists, that violence from Palestinians is desirable or pardonable. That is precisely what she has been accused of saying, however, by some in Israel’s media. In a late June interview with Israeli television’s “Meet the Press,” host Rina Matzliach asked Zoabi about her view, expressed in an earlier interview, that the kidnappers of the three Israeli teenagers mentioned above were not “terrorists.” Zoabi responded (in Hebrew, with her statements translated) that she was sorry that “there is not a strong enough struggle opposing the [Israeli] occupation.” She then attempted to explain, through repeated interruptions and attempts at diversion from her host over a period of 20 minutes, that Palestinian behavior toward Israelis, including violence, has to be understood as a desperate response to Israeli dominance and aggression rather than a string of thoughtful, deliberate acts committed without influence. Absent the refusal to end settlements, release prisoners and generally end the long, ongoing provocation, she insists, Palestinians would have no reason to resort to violence. Their actions therefore must be understood sympathetically as panicked bids for self-defense in a deeply unfair fight, however misguided and reckless they may be.


“Does it seem strange to you that people under occupation kidnap?” echoed the recording of her earlier interview. Emphasizing that she did not condone the kidnapping and wanted the victims returned immediately and without injury, the kidnappers, she told Matzliach, “are not terrorists because I look at the macro level.” As to the strategy she endorses on the part of Palestinians and their sympathizers, Zoabi spoke of “a just struggle within the limits of international laws [and ‘human morality’] against the occupation.”

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