July 13, 2010 / 9:48 PM / in 9 years

Arab MP under pressure in Israel over Gaza aid ship

* Parliament lifts Haneen Zoabi’s diplomatic credentials

* Zoabi sees the step as further straining Jewish-Arab ties

By Allyn Fisher-Ilan

JERUSALEM, July 13 (Reuters) - Israel’s parliament voted on Tuesday in favour of scrapping the diplomatic privileges of an Arab lawmaker accused of siding with the state’s enemies by taking part in an aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip.

Lawmakers voted 34 to 16 for a motion that would allow the authorities to bar Haneen Zoabi, 41, from leaving the country, and lift her right to a diplomatic passport.

Zoabi is the only female member of parliament from a party representing Israeli Arabs that has called for Israel to redefine itself as a multi-ethnic rather than Jewish state.

Speaking to Reuters after the vote, Zoabi said the move, though mostly symbolic, was a potential irritant to already strained ties between Jews and Arabs, who make up about a fifth of Israel’s population.

"This threatens the rights of Arab citizens to a just struggle for equality," said Zoabi, a first-term lawmaker.

A legislative committee had recommended the sanctions soon after Zoabi alighted the flotilla which was intercepted by Israeli commandos on May 31. Nine Turkish activists were killed.

Parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin waited before putting the recommendations to a general vote, while Israel’s attorney general weighed the possibility of bringing criminal charges.

The flotilla incident sparked a world outcry, damaged Israel’s ties with Muslim ally Turkey, and forced it to ease its blockade of Gaza. A naval embargo remains in place to keep weapons from reaching its Hamas Islamist rulers, Israel says.

Israel says troops acted in self-defence when activists set upon troops with knives and iron bars, and defended the blockade as a measure to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas Islamists in charge of Gaza. Activists aboard the ship disputed that account.

Zoabi was never accused of participating in the violence, but some Israelis were angry she never openly criticised it. Zoabi had earlier told Reuters she did make efforts to mediate between the sides.


Yet, many in Israel accused Zoabi of siding with their enemy, Hamas, which says it seeks the state’s destruction.

Parliament assigned Zoabi an armed guard after she received death threats last month. She has been at the centre of several angry parliament debates.

"Traitors must not be given the opportunity to speak," Anastasia Michaeli, an ultranationalist lawmaker, shouted at her during one parliament session.

Centrist politicians have also criticised Zoabi. Tzahi Hanegbi of the Kadima party told Reuters she had "done serious damage to trust between Jews and Arabs".

"It was very provocative, to stand up with people who are hostile to Israel, and embarrass the country," Hanegbi said.

Israeli Arabs enjoy full citizenship rights, though many complain of discrimination and poorer funding for their towns.

Most are descended from Palestinians who stayed in what is now Israel when hundreds of thousands were driven out or fled during fighting in the late 1940s.

Speaking in her defence before the house on Tuesday, Zoabi argued her peers should be protecting her democratic rights, not punishing her for views they think unpopular.

"I wasn’t elected to serve Kadima, Likud or Labour," Zoabi said afterwards, naming Israel’s mainstream Zionist parties.

"To represent liberal positions against occupation and seige. That’s what I do, not only as my right, but as a duty."

(Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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