The significance of the veiled Knesset member

Iman al-Khatib (Al-Quds al-Arabi)

Suhail Kewan

Middle East Monitor  /  March 5, 2020

We have to address the fact that four Arab [Palestinian] women have been elected to the new Israeli parliament, the Knesset, amongst them the first Arab woman MK to be wearing hijab, Iman Al-Khatib. We often see veiled women in positions of responsibility and they usually have strong personalities, which is a must, because women in general, veiled or not, face great obstacles on the path to self-achievement. The challenges begin in their own communities, many of which still doubt their leadership capabilities, such as in municipal councils. It is even harder than usual for hijab-wearing women in an environment affected by racism and hatred towards Arabs and Muslims generally.

Seeing Al-Khatib in the Knesset is reminiscent of Ilhan Omar, the US Democratic Congresswoman, about whom Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, President Donald Trump, has expressed his hatred. Notoriously, Trump called on her to return to her country of origin, Somalia, because of her anti-racist activism. She has also been accused by American Zionists of being “anti-Semitic” because of her firm criticism of Israeli policies.

With respect to immigrants everywhere, though, Iman Al-Khatib is not one of them. She is from Yafa An-Naseriyye; a native of the country. She holds a Master’s degree in social sciences, and is the mother of three children. She is not the first Arab MK, of course; that honour belongs to Husnia Jabara, a member of the far-left Meretz Party, followed by Haneen Zoabi, the first woman MK from an Arab party, the National Democratic Assembly. The others are Aida Touma-Suleiman from the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality; Niven Abu Rahmoun for a few months, from the Joint List; and then Heba Yazbek from Balad. This is in addition to Sonia Saleh, from Ta’al (Arab Movement for Renewal), who was elected in the latest poll.

The presence of four Arab women in the Knesset through the Joint List indicates the parties’ awareness of the need for a strong female presence in parliament as active politicians. There is also a growing awareness of women’s rights, status, and strength. Such strong Arab representation in the Knesset is notable, and the hijab has its own significance in this regard, raising as it does the question for Arabs and Jews alike about what the Knesset might look like in the coming years.

The Arab candidates will be able to reach the number of MKs equivalent to the power of a political party. This is significant for two reasons: the Arabs will become decision-makers and partners in crucial issues in the Knesset over the next two decades, and the Zionist parties will escalate their hostile measures against them to block their expanded influence. This means strengthening the already draconian discriminatory laws that Netanyahu started with, first and foremost the “Jewish Nation-State Law, and legislation to cut the maximum number of Arab MKs to just 10 per cent of the total. This will be done to preserve the Jewish character of the state, or prevent those who did not serve in the army or other national services from having the right to vote.

This is not new; such suggestions have been made before. There are clear indicators of passing laws that de-legitimise parties that do not accept the exclusive Jewishness of the state, and outlaw them. These efforts will be fierce in the coming years as the influence of the Arabs on the composition of the Knesset grows; this will include the Joint List with its four MKs, and any that may be added to it later. Will the Zionist parties agree to 30 Arab MKs to be in parliament for the next two decades, regardless of whether or not the women are wearing hijab, and whether they are communists, Muslims or nationalists? To be honest, this is what Netanyahu was trying to avoid by passing the Nation-State Law and cancelling Arabic as an official language in Israel, even though 20 per cent of the population are Arabic speakers. There are already draft bills to prevent parties that do not recognise the state’s Jewishness from participating in the elections, thus preventing the possibility of any significant and thus influential Arab presence in the Knesset. Any remaining presence will be a mere formality to serve the image of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The increase in Arab representation in the Knesset over the past year from nine to fifteen MKs has highlighted the power of Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens, along with the essence of the upcoming conflict in the parliamentary arena, which presents us with two possibilities. The first is the continuation of the racism and apartheid approach, which will be intensified by passing more racist laws. The second is the establishment of a large, peaceful Arab and Jewish front that prevents further deterioration.

This is what the Joint List suggests through its leader Ayman Odeh, but it is a distant dream under the current circumstances. It is clear that the extreme right wing is stronger and in complete harmony with the global shift to the right and hostility towards Islam and Arabs, as represented by Trump. The racists will not accept Arabs as equal partners and they will do everything in their power to stop this Arab advancement into the stronghold of Israeli decision-making. The presence of a hijab-wearing MK in Israel’s parliament is just one part of the conflict across multiple arenas over the character, shape, and destiny of this country and its people, and those who live in it.

Suhail Kewan regularly contributes to Middle East Monitor