Why are Israelis so afraid of this female Arab lawmaker?

Why are Israelis so afraid of this female Arab lawmaker?
Comment: Heba Yazbak is a strong, articulate woman, a highly educated Arab politician, and a perfect role model for Palestinians. In short, everything Israel fears, writes Daoud Kuttab.
5 min read
13 Feb, 2020
34-year old Yazbak is a member of the Joint List for the Balad party [Getty]
When right-wing Israeli politicians began a campaign to disqualify a Palestinian member of the Knesset it was initially seen as a marginal issue by a fringe group.

But when the majority of Knesset members joined the attacks on MK Heba Yazbak, it became clear that this was yet another sign of some Israeli lawmakers' increasing animosity towards female Palestinian politicians. 

The Israeli high court ruled Sunday, 9 February that Yazbak will in fact be allowed to run in the 2 March Israeli elections, despite an overwhelming vote in Israeli Knesset.

Gender studies experts point out that this is a prevailing phenomenon in Israeli politics, one that sees strong, articulate Arab women, who challenge stereotypes of Palestinian women, instill fear among Israeli lawmakers.  

Yazbak, who has a Ph.D. from Tel Aviv University in sociology and anthropology is a member of the Joint List for the Balad party, was threatened with disqualification for her support of Palestinian and Arab nationalists and former prisoners. Right-wing Israeli attackers consider her to have praised terrorism on social media, and had asked the Israeli high court to remove her from the Arab Joint List for the upcoming elections.

Yazbak responded on her twitter page by saying  that all of the allegations raised against her "were debated and rejected by both the Central Election Commission and the Supreme Court." She noted in Hebrew that "this is a request for disqualification whose sole purpose is populism and delegitimisation, which will serve the Liberman campaign."

Strong, articulate Arab women, who challenge stereotypes of Palestinian women, instill fear among Israeli lawmakers

She vowed to "continue to work for political and civil justice, against the occupation and against racism, discrimination, and incitement."

Dr Afaf Jabari, a lecturer in gender and migration at the University of East London believes that Israeli lawmakers fear such independent women because they threaten one of the tenets of worldwide support for Israel.

"Israel has worked on gaining world sympathy precisely on the basis of being a democracy that respects human rights and [the notion] that they are dealing with barbaric backward people. Women like Yazbak and before that Haneen Zoabi, Ahed Tamimi and member of the Palestinian legislature, Khalida Jarrar, destroy that narrative."

Former Israeli Knesset member Haneen Zoabi notes that in comparison to male politicians, "Palestinian women in politics have different challenges and face much bigger forces in opposition because Israelis are trying to deny them a chance to be a role model. The normal balance of profit and loss is different for women who have to deal with internal and external forces attempting to deny them their voice and the chance to break a ceiling that has been artificially created for them."

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Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens agrees that there is a common attitude towards Palestinian women who are willing to challenge the ruling powers. "We see this targeting often focused on Palestinian women who are articulate and independent. Educated Palestinian women surprise them and they become much more violent towards them."

Farah says that these Israeli lawmakers are angered because Yazbak argues in a convincing way. "She makes a powerful logical argument and has a strong command of the Hebrew language and this surprises them because they have built in their mind an image of a weak woman, a woman who breaks down when a man screams at them."

Left-wing Israeli journalist and political analyst Anat Saragusti suggests the issue here is discrimination and a struggle over narratives. "It is sad to see how opinionated and strong Palestinian women get a misogynist attitude as if they are not entitled to have an independent world view."

Saragusti says
 that such women "intrigue the hardcore of the Israeli alpha male, and they become the ultimate witch, the symbol of evil, and they lose their humanity." She argues that "political scrutiny of Palestinian women is much stronger than their male colleagues and partners."

Dr Jaabari notes that while in Israeli politics, the battle is to discredit women such as Zoabi and Yazbak, when it comes women in the occupied territories, the more brutal goal is to demoralise them:

"In the occupied territories it is clearly a masculine overpowering attitude using the military as the main conduit for attempting to break a community. They believe that if you break a woman then you break the community, they want to show that their men can't protect them and therefore this targeting aims at demolishing their honour and breaking their will.

Farah says that these Israeli lawmakers are angered because Yazbak argues in a convincing way

"Women are therefore targeted because they don't want Palestinians to appear as civilised with a strong and logical narrative. Such women are challenging the very masculine presence of the power that is based on the military might, they think that every time you can target these groups then you are targeting what is seen as the weakest and most vulnerable" Jabari says.

Rula Abu Daho, leading gender studies professor at Birzeit University, says that in fact, Israeli politicians want to destroy Palestinian nationalism, regardless of gender. The fact that Palestinian female prisoners come from all backgrounds and ideologies frustrates their attempts to have a singular anti-Palestinian narrative.

"There is a male stereotype in their mind but this stereotype fails when Palestinians of all walks resist them. The women in prison are secular and religious leftists and Islamists and they come from all political parties and factions." Abu Daho says that Israel wants to perpetuate a narrative that can "break the idea of a Palestinian female heroine."

The Israeli Palestinian political battle is now much more of a battle of narratives. In this struggle for ideas that prevail, the projected role and attitude towards women now reflects a general attempt to deny Palestinians the right to their land, as well as to their own narrative.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

Follow him on Twitter: @daoudkuttab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.