Palestinian lawmaker Rinawie Zoabi’s insistence on the right of return exposes Israeli apartheid

Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi (Twitter)

Jonathan Ofer

Mondoweiss  /  June 12, 2022

It is well known that the Israeli “government of change” is crumbling. The recent drama that appears to be its death blow is its failure to pass an Apartheid order extension which affords Israeli Jewish settlers national civil rights in Palestinian Occupied Territory, while the Palestinians living in the same areas suffer oppressive military rule.

The order has been extended regularly since 1967, and the government made it a flagship matter to pass the extension, but it failed. Beyond some abstentions from the Palestinian conservative Ra’am party (United Arab List) which is in government, and the couple of renegades from premier Bennett’s Yamina (Rightwards) party, there were a couple of Palestinians in the governing coalition who actually voted against: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, a Palestinian lawmaker with the Meretz party, and Mazen Ghanaim from Ra’am.

Ghanaim faced less pressure than Rinawie Zoabi, since he is part of a Palestinian party, and who can chide a Palestinian for voting against a blatant Apartheid law? But Rinawie Zoabi faced immense pressure from the Zionist party, which Meretz after all is. On Friday, Meretz activists protested outside her home in Nof Hagalil, in the northern Galilee, demanding her resignation.  

Both lawmakers have made it clear that they will not bow to such pressures, and that they would continue to vote according to their conscience on such matters, as well as on this law in particular. The order expires on July 1st, and the opposition, which is the most rightwing opposition in Israel’s history (as the government is also rightwing), is voting against the order, so as to see the coalition fall and expose it for not being able to run a government because of its “anti-Zionist elements”.

In other words, the Israeli government is in a deadlock between two rightwing branches.

While much of this is being discussed and analyzed internationally, here is a story that has not received much attention due to all this noise. It is extraordinary because it reaches all the way back to Israel’s founding, its ethnic cleansing, and the Palestinian right of return.

On Thursday, Rinawie Zoabi spoke on Nas Radio, an Arabic Israeli channel based in Nazareth, saying that the reason why she agreed to enter the Bennett-Lapid government was the historical achievement that was promised to her: the return of the residents of two Arab Palestinian villages in the Galillee – Iqrit and Birim. Her account was reported by Mako N12 News (Hebrew).

Now before delving into the history of these two towns, it is important to note that Rinawie Zoabi actually resigned from the government briefly on May 19th, less than a week after the horrors of the Israeli army’s killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the police attack on her funeral. At that time, Rinawie Zoabi pointed to these events as a definite breaking point, in addition to other events which were “intolerable” – including the pending Apartheid bill. Her resignation briefly put the government in an actual minority, of 59 seats in the 120-member Knesset, and Zoabi was pressed to return, which she did, after less than a week.

We can only imagine the pressures on Zoabi and the government, to get her back. And it was reported that she presented a list of demands to Yair Lapid, the Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister, which included the return of the Palestinian inhabitants of these two towns. On Friday, Lapid denied these claims wholesale, but the document was actually aired on television (I will return to this later).

Rinawie Zoabi explained that her demand was that she would “be absolved from having to vote on issues conflicting with her conscience, and that the request was to present issues that were important for the Arab society – and therefore we agreed to work on those issues”.

Rinawie Zoabi said that Lapid had initially opposed her demands outright, but she posed them as unconditional, and he promised that “we would talk about each bill before it is put up [for vote]”, and that she told him “alright, I won’t surprise you”, and that they moved on like that.

Iqrit and Birim

Now, let’s look at these two cases, because they are actually quite well documented cases of expulsion which even the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled for the return of the residents. (This story is extensively covered by David Grossman in his 1992 book “Sleeping on a Wire“).

These two predominantly-Christian Palestinian towns 13 miles apart in the northern Galillee suffered quite similar fates. They were not ethnically cleansed in the same way as many others of the hundreds of towns in 1948. They received a military order to evacuate the town for supposed emergency and temporary military purposes, and the villagers were promised by the military commanders that they would be able to return within weeks.

First they lived outside in caves and temporary dwellings, and weeks passed, months passed – and they were not allowed return. In the early 1950’s the cases got to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the villagers must be allowed return, since everything was so clearly documented and there was no longer any military pretext. The Israeli army then demolished the towns, being fully aware of the court order – so as to prevent the possibility of return.

On the lands of Birim, the Jewish kibbutz Baram was erected.

These two cases are very known cases of what is called Present Absentees (which is the name of Grossman’s book in Hebrew). This curious and oxymoronic name describes Palestinian residents within Israel who were allowed to remain within Israel, yet stripped of their rights to their land. They have citizenship, but they have no land rights. They are “present” because they exist, but their property is considered “absentee” property, managed by the state until further notice.

Iqrit and Birim are not the only cases of Present Absentees, and therefore, any form of return of these people to their lands is considered a danger because it might legitimize the Palestnian right of return– even if it is only in a limited sphere, even if the court said so.

So Rinawie Zoabi was seeking to resolve this issue. And according to N12 news, the leaked document actually speaks of the “establishment of two new Arab villages, with an accentuation on ending the saga of Iqrit and Birim.” In other words, Rinawie Zoabi is not necessarily suggesting a return to the very same place or homes, because these were destroyed 70 years ago, but an establishment of towns in the proximity.

Lapid denies

Lapid’s office said in response to Rinawie Zoabi’s exposure of the deal on Thursday, that it never happenned. Lapid tweeted:

To remove doubt, the story of Iqrit and Baram [sic] is a delusion (and a very strange one). Never happened.

Rinawie Zoabi fought back on Friday and said “Lapid says it was a delusion, so I say: you want proof? You don’t want to bring me to that situation.”

Likud attacks

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has used the story as a means of castigating the government, saying:

“The legacy of the Bennett government – the right of return. The Bennett and Lapid government work with lawmakers Zoabi, Abbas, Tibi and anti-Zionist forces to reinsert the right of return – we must topple the government of weakness and return the country to our hands”.

As usual, Likud is citing Palestinian names. And by the way Ahmad Tibi is not even in the government. He is a Palestinian-Israeli lawmaker in the six-member Joint List.

Israel’s problem: Apartheid

This all leads back to Israel’s cardinal problem: Apartheid. Not Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi. Not Mazen Ghanaim – Apartheid.

Israel is experiencing these government crises because of its Apartheid. Is it any coincidence that this drama happens with the backdrop of the vote for the blatant Apartheid law? Even Peace Now calls that law “Apartheid” outright.

Yesterday, the political journalist Nahum Barnea analyzed the situation in the centrist Ynet, with the title, “Israel’s political maturity is in regression”. Barnea’s take is that the effort to include a Palestinian party in the governing coalition has failed.

Following Monday’s vote in the Knesset on the bill extending the Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the coalition began assessing the damage, having failed to persuade all members of the government to back the legislation. That vote made two things clear: firstly, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government is a minority one; secondly, the attempt to incorporate an Arab party into the governing coalition has failed.

It’s failed? So Israel has to go back to its safety zone, where it simply doesn’t have a Palestinian party in government? That appears to be Barnea’s conclusion. Like lawmaker Nir Orbach of Yamina said when he charged at Ghanaim in Parliament, shouting that “the experiment with you has failed.” And it must be pointed out that Rinawie Zoabi is not a member of a Palestinian party. No, she is part of Meretz. So the conclusion of the supposedly liberal Barnea appears to be, that it is generally a problem to have Palestinian lawmakers in government at all.

But this is not seeing the elephant in the room. Apartheid. That’s the truth of what is happening, and Zionists are outraged that Palestinians are being difficult in supporting it.

Apartheid is the failure. Israel doesn’t have a “political maturity” problem. It is an immature Apartheid state that never rectified its crimes against humanity, and it just destroys so that the problem will go away, like it destroyed Iqrit and Birim. Israel is experimenting with a façade of “democracy” to make this Apartheid function with a semblance of law and order. And every crack that appears in that façade, pointed out by Palestinians, has to be covered over to keep up appearances.

It is a failed experiment, and it’s about time that the world realized, that the Zionist experiment has no other name than Apartheid.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark