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Netanyahu moves against Palestinian MKs in 'demagogic campaign'

Feb. 8, 2016 7:43 P.M. (Updated: March 19, 2016 4:27 P.M.)
(Pool/AFP/Menahem Kahana, File)
By: Killian Redden

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to oust Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset who recently visited the families of Palestinian attackers, in what critics have slammed as a "demagogic campaign."

Netanyahu said Sunday he had asked Israel's attorney general to take legal action against Palestinian MKs Hanin Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka and Basel Ghattas -- all members of the Arab Joint List -- for "going to comfort the families of murderers."

The Israeli premier said: "I would like to examine new and reinforced legislative changes to ensure that anyone who acts in this direction will not serve in the Israeli Knesset."

Following his remarks, a draft bill was submitted Monday to the Knesset's Law and Justice Committee that could see Palestinian MKs suspended from the Knesset if voted for by 90 MKs, or three quarters of Israel's lawmakers.

Israeli daily Haaretz reported that If approved by the committee, the bill could be voted on in the Knesset and drafted into law as early as next week.

Israeli activist group Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc) urged Israelis "not to take part in a demagogic campaign against the Arab Knesset Members, even though it is orchestrated by Prime Minister Netanyahu in person.

"For months, the government of Israel and its extreme right auxiliaries are conducting a hunting expedition, targeting those who dare to raise their voice against the occupation and speak out for basic human rights," the group said in a statement.

It added that Netanyahu's move -- which it said was supported by most of the Israeli political establishment and media -- had singled out Palestinian MKs as "the most convenient scapegoat."

Holding bodies

Earlier Monday, Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri appeared to question the legitimacy of any change in law, saying that while "every citizen should be against terror," the Palestinian MKs' visit to attackers' families did not necessarily constitute "a criminal offense."

"In order to decide on this, we asked the police to gather information," Nizri said. "What was discussed during the meeting (with the families)? We need the full facts."

According to Gush Shalom, MKs Zoabi, Zahalka, and Ghattas visited the families in a bid to challenge Israel's controversial policy of holding the bodies of Palestinians shot dead after carrying out attacks on Israelis.

The group said the visits were made with "a very specific and openly declared aim: to resolve a difficult humanitarian problem -- namely, the government policy of holding onto the bodies of killed Palestinians and refusing to return them to their families for burial."

As the Knesset's House Committee joined the call for the MKs to face the "maximum penalty" from the Ethics Committee on Monday, it also urged the Israeli government "not to return terrorists' bodies."

After a surge of attacks on Israelis began in October, the Israel government began a policy of holding the bodies of alleged attackers, in what rights groups decried as collective punishment of their families.

However, the policy was largely reversed in December, following concerns from Israel's security establishment that it was only further stoking tensions.

Despite the indignation of Israel's far right, most bodies have since been returned, although the Israeli authorities are continuing to hold the bodies of nearly 10 Palestinians, some of whom were shot dead nearly four months ago.

'Fundamental difference'

The action against Palestinian MKs has laid bare a deep rift in Israeli society, from which rights groups say Palestinians -- constituting a fifth of Israel's population -- have faced systematic exclusion for decades.

Gush Shalom highlighted that there was "a fundamental difference of attitude" between Israel's Jewish and Palestinian population regarding the attacks in recent months.

"The great majority of Israeli Jews are fully convinced that all Palestinian who were 'neutralized' and killed by soldiers and police were dangerous terrorists who 'deserved to die' and that there had been no cases of an excessive use of force," the group said.

"Among the Arab public in Israel, the opinions on these issues are quite different."

Since the beginning of October, nearly 30 Israelis have been killed in small-scale attacks by Palestinians, most of them armed only with knives.

Around 170 Palestinians have been killed in the same period -- most of whom Israel alleges were attempting attacks, although international rights groups have disputed Israel's version of events in a number of cases.

While Israel has sought to blame the violence on religious incitement through social media, Palestinians have pointed to Israel's nearly 50-year military occupation of the Palestinian territory, no prospect of a political solution, and a deep sense of frustration and despair.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute's Peace Index in October, around half of Israel's Palestinian population believe the attacks stem from "Palestinians' despair over the lack of progress in talks on a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

The same index found that the overwhelming majority of Israel's Jewish population reject that position.

The Arab Joint List was formed last year when four Palestinian parties joined together to fight for the rights of Israel's Palestinian minority, but they have faced staunch resistance from Israel's political establishment.

Gush Shalom said that the Palestinian MKs, "who have won the vote of hundreds of thousands of citizens, are committed to represent in Knesset the opinions of their own voters."
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