On March 28, 2006, Nadia Hilou from the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa became only the second Palestinian woman to be elected to the Knesset since 1949, the year of Israel’s first national elections. Hilou’s sole predecessor was Husniyya Jabara, who made history in 1999 when she won a seat in the Israeli parliament. Jabara’s election to the Knesset with Meretz, a leftist Zionist party, caught the political system by surprise. Hardly anyone expected an Arab woman to win, much less Jabara, because many other Palestinian women in both Arab and Zionist parties were better known in the media or had longer histories as political and social activists. Jabara won the thirteenth seat in the Meretz party primaries and then the party advanced her to the tenth slot, which the Meretz list reserved for Arabs. Polls suggested that Meretz would lose about half of the nine seats it previously held. Despite the polls, Jabara finally won with the help of kibbutz-based Jewish voters.

Some Palestinian Knesset members who served in the Fifteenth Knesset (1999–2003) saw Jabara’s victory as an “accident.” According to one of them, “We won’t see this in upcoming elections. It was a one-time thing.” This statement was a signal that Arab party leaders will not endorse Arab women’s Knesset campaigns in the foreseeable future. Elections for the Sixteenth Knesset in 2003 passed without an Arab woman winning a seat. Jabara did not run again, having left politics, but she remained a member of Meretz. In an interview in July she said, “Many of Meretz’s leaders left the party. The party is in decline, and I could not be helpful as long as Meretz remained out of the government. There were also things that I didn’t like about Meretz, and I preferred to step aside for the time being.” [1]

Nadia Hilou’s victory in the 2006 elections marked a new phase in Arab women’s representation in the Israeli national arena. After two unsuccessful bids in 1996 and 1999, she won a Knesset seat through a Zionist party, like Jabara before her. Hilou ascended to the Knesset via Labor, the second-largest party in Israel, which had joined the new government led by the right-wing Kadima Party that Ariel Sharon formed just a few months before the elections took place.

Hilou’s first unsuccessful bid, in 1996, was also with the Labor Party, which had placed her thirty-seventh on its list. But the party won only 34 seats, putting Hilou out of contention. The political scientist Benjamin Neuberger viewed Hilou’s case as “important and significant” for Palestinians in Israel, saying: “Nadia Hilou, a Christian Arab woman, was elected by tens of thousands of Jewish party members to a national electoral list from a slot which was not reserved for Arabs, in contrast to Arab candidates who were elected in the ‘Arab’ sector and the ‘Druze’ sector for reserved slots.” He went on to claim — simplistically: “This is an indication of true and deep-rooted integration for the Arabs in Israeli politics.” [2] Hilou’s second unsuccessful bid, in 1999, came after she won the nineteenth seat in Labor’s primary elections, but coalition maneuvering by Ehud Barak, the elected prime minister, granted the position to a Russian Jewish émigré, Marina Solodkin, in an effort to gain Russian votes.

Angry and frustrated, Hilou left Labor and joined Am Ehad (One Nation) led by Amir Peretz, who split from the Labor Party in 1999. Am Ehad won only two seats. Commenting on this experience, Hilou said, “The Labor Party is willing to compromise and position an Arab in second place on its list. It would not permit an Arab to be in first place because of the assumption that Arabs would not — or could not — be elected. I fought this assumption as a woman and as an Arab. Barak did not want to see a strong figure and kept me out in spite of the fact that I advanced in the most democratic way.”

Am Ehad merged back with Labor in 2004, and Peretz became the Labor Party leader in 2005. In the 2006 election, Hilou was placed fifteenth on the Labor Party slate after competing with two Jewish women for the fourth slot, which was reserved for women. Her entry was still not assured because of coalitions into which the party might enter with other parties. When the lists finally closed, it was certain that Hilou was going to make it.

Afterward, Hilou looked back at the factors that contributed to her victory. She claimed that her proficiency in Hebrew and her understanding of Jewish “attitudes and mentality” were among the causes of her success. Other factors included her professional social work, her activism around the issue of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, and her persistence. While Husniyya Jabara toiled outside the limelight, the Hebrew media celebrated Hilou, an Arab woman who speaks fluent Hebrew with an “Israeli” accent, as the new face for Arab women politicians in Israel from the moment she appeared on the political scene in 1996.

The cases of Jabara and Hilou raise some important questions: Why have Zionist parties been the only vehicles by which Palestinian women can wage successful bids to the Knesset? Furthermore, why have Arab parties so far failed to that end? And why has this been a recent phenomenon, with the first Arab woman winning a bid only in 1999? Interviews with key Palestinian women and men politicians [3] revealed a complex intersection of gender, ethno-national factors and religious practices that are hindering Arab women’s representation in national politics.

A Slap at Arab Parties?

Husniyya Jabara’s election to the Knesset in 1999 prompted a heated discussion among Arab party members and women activists. Some saw it as a blow to the credibility of the Arab parties, which had failed to put a woman in the Knesset over the years. A woman activist from the leading Palestinian political party in Israel, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (DFPE), [4] said, “It is a shame that the first Arab woman to make it to the Knesset did so through a Zionist party. We hope the Arab parties will learn a lesson and finally work seriously to place an Arab woman in the Knesset.” Another Palestinian woman activist said, “Joining a Zionist party is a red line for Arab men and women. Why is Jabara singled out for condemnation? Arab men in Zionist parties deserve reproach as well. I cannot comprehend how any Arab would join a party that oppresses us as a national minority.”

Other women argued that Jabara does not represent Palestinian women in Israel. According to one, “Jabara represents the Zionist party that put her in the Knesset. Her gender alone will not advance our national concerns — nor will it necessarily advance gender concerns.”

In response to these statements, Jabara said, “I never claimed to represent Arab women in Israel. Besides, Meretz is not a ‘Zionist’ party even though some of its members are Zionists. We have seen what the Arab parties have given to Arabs and to women, and we have seen what the ‘Zionist’ party has given.” Jabara went on to criticize Arab women, saying, “We do not support each other as much as we could.”

Hilou faced similar, if more severe, criticism before the 2006 elections; many Arab politicians even boycotted the political meetings and panels in which she participated. For Hilou, however, joining a Zionist party was not in itself a problem. “The party is just a tool for achieving certain goals. The parliament is Jewish; all members have to take a vow of loyalty to it. One can’t accept part of it and reject other parts. After I made it to the Knesset, some of those who boycotted me prior to the elections now come to me for help. Instead of working through mediators, why won’t we be directly represented in parties that can impact our lives?”

“The [2006] elections were more challenging and cruel than the others,” Hilou continued. “Arab leaders dismissed the Zionist parties and made ad hominem attacks on their candidates. They tried to distort my character, attacked me personally and refused to discuss the real issues.”

In 2006, the three main Arab parties, the DFPE, the National Democratic Assembly (NDA) and the United Arab List — composed of the Islamic Movement-Southern Wing, the Arab Democratic Party and the Arab Movement for Renewal — decided to run separately. [5] The Knesset had raised the qualifying threshold for party lists to 2 percent of the vote (up from 1.5 percent), however, making it harder for small parties to win seats. Because of this change and the strong popular campaign among Israel’s Palestinian citizens to boycott the elections, many expected that some Arab parties would be wiped off the political map. Another big challenge for the Arab parties was to minimize the number of Arab votes going to Zionist parties. In this climate, women’s representation was not a high priority for the Arab parties. In the primary elections, the DFPE and NDA pushed Arab women to the margins, an action that belied party propaganda that plastered websites, newspapers and TV screens with photos of young, educated and active women.

Women who questioned this transparent marginalization kept silent, either out of frustration or in protest. ‘Aida Tuma, a second-place DFPE candidate, said in June 2006 that she withdrew at the last minute to protest internal party dealings. She subsequently heard charges of “conspiracy” leveled at her because she had criticized the way the party handled the primaries.

When Tuma competed in DFPE primaries in 1999, she understood that she had little chance of winning, but she thought it was important to make a statement. At that time she said, “The DFPE is a microcosm of our society — as are the other parties. Although its platform on women’s issues is progressive, not all of its members share such views. A small party has to take many things into consideration. For example, the national issue — the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the struggle for equality for Arab citizens — is always the highest priority. Competition within the party is intense and the list must represent many disparate constituencies.”

Even though the DFPE depended heavily on Arab votes, it never worked seriously to position an Arab woman high enough on its slate for a realistic Knesset bid. On the other hand, the party readily placed a Jewish woman, Tamar Gozanski, who served from 1990 to 2003 in four consecutive Knessets, high on its list. Gozanski’s relative success in the DFPE frustrated some Palestinian women party members. One of them, Hala Espanioli, was roundly criticized by party members for competing with Gozanski for a position on the list in the party’s 1999 primary elections. Some within the party held that “Gozanski solves the issue of Jewish representation because the DFPE is a joint Jewish-Arab party and it is important to maintain this dimension.”

The creation of the NDA in the mid-1990s brought new blood to Arab politics. Many women, especially from the academy, joined the party. Still, the NDA has yet to prioritize the issue of Arab woman representatives, since its first campaign in 1996. One NDA activist, who preferred to maintain her anonymity, said, “Leading up to the 1999 elections, the party leadership wanted to appoint ‘safe’ women on its own terms. Women in the party who actually fought for their position were considered to be threatening and were neutralized.”

In the 2006 elections, Hanin Zu‘bi, from Nazareth, competed for the third slot in the NDA list against two men, one of whom, Wasil Taha, was an incumbent Knesset member. When Zu‘bi garnered about one third of the party votes, some saw her candidacy as a success even though she did not win election.

Other women in the NDA refused to compete on the slate because they felt that their names were being used as mere decoration. Prior to Zu‘bi’s campaign, Afnan Ighbariyya, from Haifa, ran and lost twice. In 1999 the NDA had placed her third on its list, but it won only one seat, and in 2002 she was fourth on the list, but the party won only three seats. Other Arab parties followed suit: It became common for them to include women on their slates as tokens, with no serious intent to get them elected. While the NDA and DFPE could have promoted women representatives after each party established a solid support base and won three seats in the 2006 elections, other interests evidently took precedence over women’s candidacies.

Between National Identity and Patriarchy

The struggle for political participation by Palestinian women must be seen in the larger historical and political context of the Palestinian minority in Israel, which now constitutes about 20 percent of the Israeli population. More than a mere attempt at “inclusion” on the Israeli political map, the women’s efforts are part of a more profound struggle for identity, land and the survival of a national minority that has been systematically disenfranchised since 1948. Although Palestinians in Israel received political rights, including citizenship, permanent residence, and the right to vote and run for public office, they remain alienated from the Jewish state, experience structural discrimination and are deeply marginalized, especially at the political level. [6] From 1948–1966, the Israeli government imposed military rule on Palestinian Arabs in Israel (a law in 1950 made ad hoc military regulations state law), with claims that its “national security” was at risk. No Arab party has ever been part of a ruling Israeli government coalition, and the Arab vote is considered illegitimate by the Jewish majority.

Until the mid-1980s, the Israeli Communist Party, which later became the DFPE, was the only anti-Zionist player on the Arab political scene because the nascent Israeli state prohibited — again ostensibly for security reasons — attempts by Palestinians in Israel to establish nationalist parties. In 1956, the Israeli Communist Party placed the pioneering Palestinian woman activist Samira Khouri, from Nazareth, eighth on the party slate; this placement was not high enough for her to make it to the Knesset.

When Arab parties such as the Progressive List for Peace and the Arab Democratic Party appeared in 1984 and 1988, respectively, the issue of Palestinian women’s representation in politics was not a high priority for them. The Progressive List entered a legal battle for recognition because of its political agenda. Both of these parties faced suspicions from the DFPE, which viewed any Arab party as a threat to its status, theretofore unique, in the Arab sector.

While the marginalization of the Palestinian minority as a whole is one of the primary reasons for the marginalization of Palestinian women, it is far from the only factor. According to many Arab politicians, just as significant were “internal” Arab dynamics — the Arab political system, and the traditions, customs and religious interpretations widespread in Arab society that excluded women from public life and the political arena. Further, these factors were also reshaped by Israeli poli- cies toward the Palestinian minority, especially during military rule. For example, the right to vote, which was granted to all Israeli citizens — including Arab men and women — with the establishment of the state, bolstered the role of the traditional hamulas (clans), which could strongly influence the Arab vote in the direction of Mapai, the ruling Zionist party at the time (and which became Labor later on).

Most Arab politicians interviewed for this article suggested that cultural and social norms were the main reasons for the marginalization of women in Israeli politics. Former Labor Party MK Nawwaf Masalha said, “Patriarchal Arab society is still very conservative about women’s participation in politics.” ‘Isam Makhoul, who served in the Knesset with the DFPE, echoed this idea, saying, “Arab society is dominated by men. It is common to hear voices that support women in politics, but when the moment of truth comes, men guard their own positions and back off of their statements.”

Ayyub Kara, a former Druze MK with Likud, tried to explain that Druze women in Israel were a special case. “While Druze women in Lebanon attained leading political positions, the Druze minority in Israel fears ideas of ‘liberalization’ and Israeli society’s ‘Westernizing’ trends among our youth. The entire world is moving forward while we are stuck with the issue of religion and women’s liberation. Still, women from all religions in the Arab sector have rights to occupy any political positions.” Salih Tarif, a former Druze Labor MK, reiterated the idea that religion is a major factor inhibiting women’s participation in political life. He claimed:
“The marginalization of Druze women — and Arab women in general — is part of an international phenomenon. The problem is that many sectors in Arab society continue to see women as little more than servants. Druze women face stringent obstacles because of our religious authorities, so they need even more of our support.”

One Druze woman activist suggested that there are more obstacles for Druze women, who make up about 10 percent of Palestinians in Israel, than for other Arab women in Israel. “We are not allowed to drive cars alone and we can’t go to political meetings at night. Our movement, attire and behavior are restricted.” While a prominent Druze religious leader refused to broach the issue of Druze women in politics, considering the topic off limits, he had no problem discussing Druze women and politics in other countries. Another Druze activist, Nadia Hamdan, challenged these attitudes, saying that “the Druze religion itself is not a problem for women — the religious authorities are. They are motivated by politics, not religion.”

NDA leader and MK Azmi Bishara went further, saying that Arab parties have to make choices that have limited women’s representation in politics: “Arab parties promote candidates that can turn out the votes. Women do not yet have a great support base.” Bishara invited women to lobby for the cause of women’s representation. Arab politicians from the DFPE said that “the party has to cater to different groups — religious, national and demographic. Because the party is very small it fails to live up to ideals about women representatives.”

However, the DFPE MKs cannot explain why they were able to achieve some constituent goals but could not actually place an Arab woman in the Knesset. A leading Palestinian woman activist in the DFPE argued that the sex of the candidate is not important: “Having an Arab woman in the Knesset is not the issue. Tamar Gozanski, for example, could represent the national and gender agenda for the party better than any Arab woman or Arab man.”

Manal Shalabi, who at 29 is a relative newcomer to politics, failed in her fourth-seat bid for the DFPE in the 2006 elections. She said that the problem of representation comes down to a lack of coordination between women. Although the party ended up placing Shalabi in the sixth seat, she was frustrated with the outcome, saying that the main obstacle to her candi- dacy came from women who “claim to be feminists.” “I do not think the DFPE is against Arab women serving in the Knesset. I did not compete at a higher slot because I am young and new, but I am gaining confidence and political experience and preparing myself for the next elections. I believe that the party withheld support to certain women not because of their gender but because they were not ‘acceptable’ at a personal level.”
The Islamic Movement-Northern Wing has not actively promoted Palestinian women since it dropped its boycott of national elections (which had caused its split with the Southern Wing), though it has pushed women candidates for the local and municipal councils. The Islamic Movement ran in Knesset elec- tions for the first time in 1996 (and for local council seats in 1988).

‘Abd al-Malik Dahamsha, a former Islamic Movement MK, said, “I do not object to women’s participation and representation in politics, but we have to protect women’s honor. The main role for women is in the home — raising children and managing the household.” Dahamsha also thinks that women lack the will to be political leaders, but said that the Islamic Movement would welcome a woman who stepped up to the task. He was at pains to show that his movement is not as “traditional” as it is often accused of being, saying, “The Islamic Movement will be the first Arab party to put a woman into the Knesset.”

Moving to Zionist Parties

Already marginalized within the nationalist parties, Arab women faced fierce competition for the limited seats set aside for women in different parties in the Jewish sector. Nadia Hilou said, “Arab women face double jeopardy — discrimination as women, and discrimination as a national minority. The limited number of seats reserved for women in Zionist parties leads to intense rivalry among Jewish women, who face marginalization of their own. Arab women thus find themselves in a most frustrating position.”

Hanna Herzog, who teaches at Tel Aviv University, writes, “Israeli society is patriarchal and politics is seen as a male domain. Israeli society tends to glorify ‘masculine’ values. As long as the agenda is controlled by security issues, where ranking military heroes play a prominent role, it will be difficult for women.” [7] Furthermore, religion and religious parties have had a strong influence on the political system and contributed to the marginalization of Jewish women in politics. Former Meretz MK Naomi Chazan agrees that “the gradual process of militarization in Israeli society as a result of the continuing Israeli-Arab conflict has spilled over into the civilian domain and had a negative effect on the status of women.” [8] In the 2003 elections, Jewish women won 15 percent of the seats in the Knesset — the highest percentage ever.

In 1993, hundreds of Arabs joined the Labor Party after the signing of the Oslo accord. It became a watershed that broke the “taboo” against Zionist parties among Palestinian students at Israeli universities. An Arab woman activist, Kifah Masarwa, said, “My parents supported Mapam. When I was a student at Haifa University in the 1980s, it was shameful to join a Zionist party — especially after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I joined the DFPE instead. After Oslo, I felt comfortable joining Meretz.” [9]

The majority of Palestinian women activists emerged from Israeli universities. Most of them started consciously confronting national and gender discrimination during their student years and then again after attaining professional employment. Women activists initially tended to be more focused on the national question, while they gradually developed a feminist consciousness through party work and their links to women’s groups. Women in the universities were mostly associated with the DFPE, because it was the only anti-Zionist party, but women started joining other Arab parties as they emerged.

Hilou said that she was initially reticent about entering the political arena. The Oslo accords and the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 changed her stance. “After Rabin was killed, I said, ‘That’s it, now I have to do something.’ Were it not for Oslo, I would not have entered politics. It was exactly then that the Labor Party adopted an ‘open primary system,’ which I found suitable because it brought me into direct contact with the party’s voters.”

Surayya Nujaydat, a politician from the mostly Bedouin village of Nujaydat in the Galilee, also ran for office with the Labor Party. Nujaydat said that national events influenced her decision to get involved in politics. “[Egyptian President Anwar al-] Sadat’s visit to Israel [in 1977] did something to me. I wanted to join the Arab Democratic Party. They started asking, ‘Who is she? Who is her father? Who is her family?’ So I joined the Labor Party.”

Another Palestinian woman in a Zionist party said her problem was Arabs within the party: “Arab men in the Labor Party worked against me. Hilou got more support. She is Christian and from a city where she has more Jewish contacts. I learned directly that it is more difficult for Muslims in this arena.” Tuma explained that “while such competition in all parties is real, it is not unique to Arab women or to women in general. Men also compete intensely against each other all the time. Competition is not defined by sex or gender.”

But Jabara’s case tells us a different story. Jabara comes from a Muslim household and a major Arab city. She adopted a campaign strategy of “protecting and respecting” tradition, believing that challenging conservative social mores would affect on-the-ground support for both women and men in a negative way. Jabara said, “I had my husband’s full support. He would join me when I went from meeting to meeting. I would enter a home and give the first word to the oldest man there. One’s attitude comprises half of a politician’s job.”

Hilou also argued about the need for a “coexistence” with tradition, saying, “I would enter conservative environments in which there were only men, or in which men and women were separated by a barrier. I was surprised by this separation, but I respected it. I wore modest attire and never challenged the norms and customs. I was walking a fine line but they embraced me.”

The 2006 elections witnessed a renewal of an old struggle when only 56.3 percent of the Palestinians in Israel voted. The low turnout was a result of a combination of factors, including ideology, apathy, a sense of disenfranchisement and conscious protest. [10] Palestinian women activists in Arab and Zionist parties expended great energy in their campaigns for the Knesset.

Reflecting on the fact that only Hilou was elected out of all the Arab women candidates, ‘Aida Tuma said, “I have no illusions — our struggle is not a one-time effort. Our most important achievement in these elections, and what distinguishes it from others, is that we broke the taboo and Knesset members of the DFPE and NDA acknowledged this [by speaking about] our right to representation.”

As Palestinian women in Israel prepare for the next battle, Rawya Shanti, a Shafa ‘Amr-based activist in the Sons of the Land Movement (Abna’ al-Balad), which was established in the early 1970s and opposes Arab participation in Knesset elections, has been organizing Palestinians in Israel to boycott upcoming elections. According to Shanti, “We have no place in a parliament of occupation, in a state that occupies Palestinian land. Arab women serve as decoration in the parties. We should struggle from the outside of official state institutions.”


[1] Interviews with Jabara, Hilou, Tuma and Shalabi were conducted by the author between June 27 and July 10, 2006, unless otherwise noted.
[2] Benjamin Neuberger, “The Arab Vote: Between Integration and Illegitimacy,” in Benjamin Neuberger, ed., Democracy in Israel (Tel Aviv: Open University, 1998), pp. 669–677. [Hebrew] [3] All interviews with Arab men and women politicians prior to the 2006 elections were conducted by the author in 2002. All male politicians were at the time MKs. Only Azmi Bishara remains an MK. See Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud, “Palestinian Women in Politics in Israel,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2002). [Hebrew] [4] The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality was established by the New Communist List and other groups in 1977. In 1965, Arab members split from the Israeli Communist Party (the Palestinian Communist Party before 1948), and established the New Communist List.
[5] For more information about the 2006 elections, see Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud, “The Arab Vote in the Upcoming Israeli National Elections,” Palestine Center Information Brief 133 (March 24, 2006) and “Beyond the Figures: The 2006 Israeli National Elections,” Palestine Center Information Brief 135 (April 6, 2006).
[6] See Azmi Bishara, al-Khitab al-Siyasi al-Mabtur (Ramallah: Muwatin, 1998).
[7] Hanna Herzog, Gendering Politics: Women in Israel (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999).
[8] Naomi Chazan, “Women as Leaders: Trends, Obstacles and Strategies,” in Semha Levin and Alon Avraham, eds. Yes! Politics Is for Me (Jerusalem: Israeli Women’s Network, 1995), pp. 19–21. [Hebrew] [9] Meretz was formed in 1992 with the merger of Raz, Mapam and Shinui, and won 12 seats in that year’s elections.


How to cite this article:

Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud "Palestinian Women in the Israeli Knesset," Middle East Report 240 (Fall 2006).

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