Gaza flotilla raid pushes unknown Knesset member into spotlight

Hanin Zoabi, who was aboard the Mavi Marmara when it was seized Monday by Israeli commandos, has stepped up as a leading domestic critic of her government's Gaza flotilla raid. Meanwhile, senior statesman Ehud Barak faces calls for his resignation.

By , Correspondent

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    Israeli Arab lawmaker Hanin Zoabi, right, who was on board the Gaza-bound flotilla when it was raided by Israeli forces Monday, attempts to speak at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as Anastassia Michaeli, of the ultra-nationalistic Yisrael Beteinu party, center, is escorted off of the podium, in Jerusalem, Wednesday.
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Reverberations within Israel from Monday's deadly raid on the Gaza flotilla are thrusting an unknown Arab-Israeli parliamentarian into the spotlight while Defense Minister Ehud Barak faces intense criticism over the botched operation that left at least nine dead.

As Mr. Barak withstands a barrage of calls for his resignation, freshman parliament member Hanin Zoabi has emerged as a leading domestic critic of her government, calling their military operation "criminal."

"She is becoming a star even though she has a reputation for being quiet,'' says Saed Adawi, an editor at the Israeli Arab Kul el Arab online news site. "She displayed bravery.''

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IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

Ms. Zoabi was aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of six ships in the so-called Freedom Flotilla that attempted to break Israel's three-year blockade on the Gaza Strip and bring in 10,000 tons of humanitarian supplies. She was detained, along with more than 600 others, when Israeli naval forces rerouted all six ships to Ashdod port.

Since the incident, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has launched an intense media campaign, posting videos on its website and YouTube that portray its soldiers as victims of pre-meditated violence from activists aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Zoabi: 'Are you sure of the Israeli story?'

Zoabi was released from police custody Tuesday because of her parliamentary immunity, and today addressed Israeli parliament in a fiery speech challenging Israel's narrative that clashes were started by club-wielding activists.

"Israel spoke of a provocation, but there was no provocation," she told the Knesset. "Why does the government of Israel oppose an investigation? Are you sure of the Israeli story?"

Her address to the Israeli Knesset was repeatedly interrupted by Jewish lawmakers calling her a traitor and shouting, "Go to Gaza, traitor!"

In a televised address Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Israel's critics of "hypocrisy."

But Zoab has not tempered her rhetoric. During a press conference Tuesday, according to Ynet news, she said: "It was clear from the size of the force that boarded the ship that the purpose was not only to stop this sail, but to cause the largest possible number of fatalities in order to stop such initiatives in the future."

Zoabi, 41, has been in the Knesset for just over a year as part of the Arab nationalist Balad party. She is the latest Arab member of the parliament to be accused of siding with Israel's enemies, underlining the heat on the country's one-fifth minority.

Ehud Barak under fire

While Zoabi emerges as a leader among Israeli Arabs, the flotilla incident has damaged the image of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is seen as the architect of the botched operation. A public opinion poll published Wednesday by the daily Maariv newspaper showed Mr. Barak as the focus of the blame.

"People were satisfied with him as a defense minister. This is the first time that he has faced real criticism,'' says Noam Shezeif, an Israeli journalist writes the Promised Land political blog. "In the long run, it causes real damage, because it hits him in his strong point.''

On Tuesday he faced a call from a party colleague to resign – which would almost certainly destabilize Netanyahu. Barak has been an important envoy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the US administration on peace talks, and his Labor Party is somewhat of a political counterweight and linchpin to Netanyahu's otherwise right wing coalition.

Analysts doubt he will resign, however, because it would amount to a mea culpa for Israel. But in the coming months, after the shock of international criticism wears off, analysts say Israelis are likely to be less forgiving of the Barak-Netanyahu duo's mishandled foreign policy.

"Mainstream Israelis are not satisfied with the justifications that there's nothing we can do about it,'' says Akiva Eldar, a political commentator from the liberal Haaretz newspaper. Such a justification is especially hard when numerous governments and the UN Security Council have condemned the violence and called for an independent inquiry.

"You can't convince [Israelis] that the Italians, Germans, and the new conservative British government, and that everyone is wrong, and they are the only one that sees the reality right."

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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