JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s interior minister has threatened to strip an Arab lawmaker of his citizenship for speaking inÂ favor of hostage-taking by Palestinian militants, posing a new test for long-strained race relations in Israel.
Wasil Taha’s comments appeared on an Islamic-affairs Web site after gunmen from Gaza abducted a soldier and killed two others in a border ambush on June 25. He called the tactic self-defense and said it was preferable to killing civilians.
The remarks caused outrage in the Jewish state, particularly after Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas seized two more troops and killed eight in a July 12 raid, prompting an Israeli offensive.
Interior Minister Roni Bar-On said the attorney-general had received a request from a right-wing lawmaker to recommend that Taha’s Israeli citizenship be revoked under a rarely invoked law forbidding citizens from abetting or encouraging enemy actions.
“I am proud to be part of a democracy that allows freedom of speech, that allows an Arab lawmaker to, in many cases, take the parliament podium and speak as the emissary of groups that wage war on and murder us,” Bar-On told Israel’s Army Radio.
“But there is a limit,” he said. “I have legal authority (over citizenship issues) and … if the attorney general tells me that under the circumstances, after checking the case, I can use this authority, I will do so without hesitation.”
A Justice Ministry spokeswoman confirmed receiving the complaint about Taha and said a decision was expected in days.
Taha, whose Balad party is openly anti-Zionist, dismissed any suggestion of wrongdoing.
“The massive bombardment of Gaza and the wave of murder and targeted killings (by Israel) have presented Palestinians with two alternatives: either resuming terrorist attacks, or to choose the tough military alternative. So they chose,” he said.
Israel has rejected the demands of the Gaza and Hizbollah militants to swap Arab prisoners for the hostages, saying that doing so would embolden Islamists sworn to its destruction.
An Israeli legal expert, Moshe Negbi, voiced doubt that the bid to strip Taha’s citizenship would go through. He said it had only been invoked once before, against a Jewish zealot who shot dead Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and was overturned.
But challenges to nationality are especially sensitive for the Arabs who make up almost one fifth of Israel’s population and have long complained of discrimination.
They are descended from Palestinians who stayed on during the country’s founding in a 1948 war while hundreds of thousands of their kin fled or were driven from their homes.
Israeli Arabs, who hold 10 of 120 seats in parliament, often speak out in support of a Palestinian revolt. Some have visited Lebanon and Syria, formally at war with Israel. They eluded prosecution at home thanks to their parliamentary immunity.
It was not clear what sort of national status would remain for Taha should he lose his Israeli citizenship.
Unlike several Hamas officials from Arab East Jerusalem whose residency status was revoked by Bar-On, Taha does not hold Palestinian Authority papers, nor the Jordanian citizenship enjoyed by many Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.