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The four Palestinian women behind stunning Joint List surge in Israel's elections

(L-R) Iman Khatib-Yassin, Aida Touma, Sundus Salih, Heba Yazbek [Getty]

Date of publication: 13 March, 2020

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Israel's male-dominated political stage is set for a small but significant shake-up as four Palestinian women championing equality on all fronts prepare to be sworn into parliament.
Israel's male-dominated political stage is set for a small but significant upset as a record number of Palestinian women prepare to be sworn into parliament, or Knesset, next week.

Four women helped propel the Palestinian-majority Joint List to their best ever election results earlier this month, helping the party double its female representation and win 15 of the Knesset's 120-seats, up from 13 during stalemate elections last September.

Among the newly elected MPs is social worker Iman Khatib-Yassin, who will be the first hijab-wearing representative in Israel's parliament, which has for many years been dominated by openly anti-Palestinian right-wingers.

All major parties in Israel are led by men, with women making up only 25 percent of its lawmakers.

In-depth: We came, we voted, we conquered: How Palestinian-Israelis beat Netanyahu's election game and became kingmakers

Along with now four Palestinian women from the Joint List, Druze MP Gadeer Kamal-Mreeh of the centrist Blue and White party was elected to parliament in September.

The base of the Joint List's support is Israel's roughly 20-percent Palestinian minority, however this time around the List was able to attract some votes from left-leaning Jewish Israelis fed up with a paltry selection of liberal parties who oppose the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Israel's Palestinian minority complain of discrimination and accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of treating them as second-class citizens.

Palestinian neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in Israel and anti-Palestinian racism is rife.

Netanyahu enshrined this hierarchy in law when he passed the Nation State bill in 2018, which specifies that Israel is the nation state for the Jewish people only, imperilling the rights of minorities.

Iman Khatib-Yassin: Women's rights champion

Khatib has been outspoken on the fight for religious and gender equality within the struggle for Palestinian rights in Israel.

"Do not make the veil a barrier. Look at the capabilities of the veil's wearer - their ethics, work, skills and attitudes," Khatib, a 54-year-old mother of four said in an interview with AFP.

There are "religious Jewish women in the Knesset", she added. "We didn't hear any comment about them."

"We must deal with people first as human beings."

Like other Palestinian MPs in Israel, Khatib speaks fluent Hebrew.

She studied social services at Tel Aviv University, specialising in women's support. In parliament, she wants to tackle issues ranging from violence in Palestinian neighbourhoods to poverty and housing.

"Sixty-four percent of women are excluded from work, not because they don't want to work but due to conditions and lack of travel options," she said, referring to the Palestinian population.

Inflexible hours mean Palestinian women often need to leave for work before their children go to school, she said.

"These issues must be put on the table at the Knesset."

Aida Touma: Joint List negotiator 

The new parliament will be sworn in next week but some fear it will last only a few months, as no bloc has a 61-seat majority, in a repeat of inconclusive polls in April and September 2019.

Aida Touma, a Palestinian Christian re-elected on 2 March, is on the List's four-person team negotiating with Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White and Netanyahu's main rival.

Blue and White needs the Joint List's support to even consider forming a government, and the List's head Ayman Odeh has indicated he could back Gantz under certain conditions. 

A women's activist before entering parliament in 2015, Touma stressed that the List's incoming female MPs "are from all walks of life and are capable and serious representatives of the whole of society".

The Joint List is an alliance of various parties representing Muslim and Christian Palestinians, as well as some Jewish leftists, and its members range from Islamists to communists.

Sundus Salih: Israel's youngest lawmaker

One member, Sundus Salih, is at 34 about to become Israel's youngest lawmaker.

The mother of three is from Al-Mashhad town near Nazareth and has a masters in science and technology.

"There are differences between the (List's) parties... but we four women unite and agree on most things," Salih told AFP.

"As a mother and a teacher I am worried by the proliferation of violence and guns."   

Hiba Yazbek: Resurgent leftist

Hiba Yazbek, also from Nazareth, was blocked as a candidate by the Central Elections Committee over Facebook posts in support of Palestinian and Arab nationalists and former prisoners, which right-wing opponents alleged amounted to supporting terrorism.

Comment: Why are Israelis so afraid of this female Arab lawmaker?

Yazbek, who has a PhD from Tel Aviv University in sociology and anthropology, denied the charges and won her appeal, winning back her Knesset seat in March as a member of the Joint List for the left-wing Balad party.

Gender studies experts have noted a phenomenon in Israeli politics whereby opinionated and articulate Palestinian women who challenge stereotypes instill fear among Israeli lawmakers.

"We intend to translate our great electoral strength into political positions that reinforce our position as Arabs in this country and confront the right-wing and its agendas," she told AFP.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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