By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's parliament gave initial approval on Monday to a bill that would allow members to suspend from the legislature colleagues whom they believe have supported Israel's enemies or have acted against the state.
The proposal was strongly criticized by opposition members who said it was aimed against Israel's Arab lawmakers.
Zouheir Bahloul, an Israel-Arab legislator from the centre-left Zionist Union faction, accused the right-wing ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of "quietly stealing Arab members' right to a democratic discourse."
Lawmakers voted 59-53 in favor of the bill, which now moves to committee but will become law only after two more votes at a later date. Netanyahu's coalition controls 61 seats in the 120-member legislature.
The proposed amendment to the basic law that governs the work of the Knesset stipulates that at least 90 of the legislature's members would have to vote to suspend a lawmaker, an unlikely scenario in Israel's tight and fractious political arena.
Rights group the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) warned "today this law is being promoted to harm the Arab MKs (Knesset members), whose statements and actions do not find favor with the political majority. Tomorrow, (it) may harm other MKs who express opposing positions to that of the ruling consensus."
The Knesset already has some powers to censure members. Last month, three Arab-Israeli lawmakers were suspended from speaking in parliament as punishment for supporting families of Palestinian assailants killed by security forces after they attacked Israelis.
Israel's Arabs have accused Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition of anti-Arab bias. He drew international condemnation after making a rallying call to his supporters on election day last year to rush to the polls because Arabs were being bussed "in droves" to vote. He later apologized for the remark.
Israel's Arabs make up about 20 percent of the country's population of 8.4 million and they are broadly represented in parliament.
The past six months has also seen the worst period of sustained violence in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Israeli interior since the second Palestinian uprising ended a decade ago.
At least 190 Palestinians, 129 of whom Israel says were assailants, have been killed by security forces and many others were shot during clashes and protests. Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens in knife, car-ramming or gun assaults.
An Israeli official said on Monday that Netanyahu had decided to suspend the return of the bodies of Palestinian assailants to their families for burial for an indefinite period because the funerals were being used as incitement platforms for further violence.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Susan Fenton)