Eight Arab citizens of Israel explain why they won’t vote

Disappointment with the Arab parties, distrust in the possibility of achieving change through the Knesset and refusal to cooperate with the occupation: Arab citizens of Israel reveal why voter turnout is expected to be historically low

Election signs in Rahat in 2021

Deiaa Haj Yahia reports in Haaretz on 3 October 2022:

Fatma Alasam, 42, from the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva in southern Israel, was once a devout believer in democracy. Every four years she made sure to report to her polling station to vote for the party of her choice. Even when the elections became more frequent and ended in deadlocks, she did not despair. The last election was the last straw for her.

More precisely, what came after the election. Like most Arab residents of the Negev, Alasam voted for the United Arab List. She says that even though the party joined the governing coalition thanks to their votes, the state did not stop mistreating Negev residents, whose situation only worsened.

“I always voted in the elections, even though every time the elected officials made promises to us and didn’t keep them,” she says. “In the last election, the majority of Arab citizens in the Negev voted for the UAL and their votes enabled the party to pass the electoral threshold. After that, it joined the coalition for the first time, but in the Negev the house demolitions continued, people were driven from their land, the crime here increased and the racism against us only intensified. In the past, we were told that if we entered the coalition we could influence from within, but it happened and nothing changed. That’s why I won’t vote in the next election – and I don’t see myself voting in the future either.”

The Arab parties have been fighting for several election rounds to raise voter turnout among Arabs, but in the November 1 Knesset election it is expected to be particularly low. According to a survey conducted last week by Yousef Makladeh’s StatNet research institute, which included 500 respondents, voter turnout among Arabs will be just 43.5 percent – the lowest ever for a general election, compared to 44.6 percent in the last election, in March 2021, and below the rate for the three preceding elections.

Eight Arab citizens of Israel who said they don’t intend to vote November 1 told Haaretz about the rationales underlying their decision, from disappointment with the political system to doubt about the ability to effect change through the Knesset, if at all.

Mohammed Jabarin, 60, of the northern Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, says he always used to vote, but doesn’t plan to this time. Among the reasons he cites are disappointment with the Arab parties and the parties in the left and the center that, he argues, “abandoned their path and their struggle by demonstrating weakness against the right” and the persistent inequality between Jews and Arabs.

“We saw that even when the Joint List received 15 Knesset seats, we could not make an impact,” he says, referring to the electoral alliance of predominantly Arab parties, recently disbanded. “Even in a government that was considered leftist, which has an Arab party, nothing changed.” Jabarin adds that he will also boycott the election so that “the Israeli leadership and the world know there is no democracy for Arab citizens of Israel.” He says Israel must leave the occupied territories and end the occupation in the West Bank, but it must also guarantee the rights of its own citizens.

Siham Abu Akrab, 25, of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod in central Israel, chemical engineer

“The Arab Knesset members forgot that in addition to their struggle to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, they represent a population that has been disadvantaged for years, suffers from racism, lacks rights and lacks infrastructure, homes, employment, education and welfare – the absence of which is one of the main reasons for the rampant violence in Arab society,” Jabarin says. “These things must not be conceded, and unfortunately, the Arab parties failed to goad and to insist on this for the benefit of the people who vote for them.”

Haya Fani, 26, of the central-Israel Arab city of Taibeh, has voted in the past but will not this time. “Each party works only in its own interest and this unification, which could have been a stable force, is disintegrating,” she explains. “The voting boycott is meant intended to send a message to the Arab parties about my dissatisfaction with their activity in the Knesset in recent years. They should agree to create one bloc for the sake of a common goal that serves society, and perhaps this will contribute to trust in them.”

‘People want to integrate’
Amal Jamal, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University who heads its Walter Liebach Institute for the study of Jewish-Arab relations, adds that when the Arab parties united to increase their influence on government policy, Arab voter turnout rose. “The Arab public wants to integrate, wants to improve its standard of living, and can only do so if the Arab parties affect a change of policy. Once unity dissolves, from the perspective of the Arab citizen, his leadership prefers party interests over general interests, and this causes disappointment and a retreat in the willingness to vote,” Jamal says.

Siham Abu Akrab, 25, of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod in central Israel, is a case in point. She says an election boycott sends the Arab parties the message that the only way they can effect change is by running together. “Only if the Arab parties were united in one slate would I consider voting. In Arab society there are many crises in social issues, we must start solving them already and part of the solution as I see it is to be united.”

Mustafa Zoabi, 25, of Nazareth, has never exercised his right to vote and doesn’t plan to do so on November 1. He believes the Arabs’ struggle for their rights must take place outside the Knesset. “To obtain our rights, we must unite under a single body that will be democratically elected and include all levels of Arab society, not through parties that fight for positions rather than principles,” he emphasizes. “An independent body whose leaders will be chosen by society, not like the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, where there are no popular elections and whose members choose its head.”

Zoabi believes that representation of the Arab public in the Knesset is harmful to it, as it creates the false impression that Israel is a democratic state in which Arab citizens have equal rights. In addition, he says he has no faith in the Arab parties and believes their lawmakers have no tangible influence. “I think it’s good to demand funding and to strive to improve the welfare of the Arabs, but it’s more important to preserve our Palestinian identity.”

Abd al-Rahman, 20, of Taibeh, had been convinced of the necessity of voting in Knesset elections. He exercised that right in the elections held since he turned 18 and before that he participated in campaigns to encourage voting for the Arab parties. He was a member of Hadash for two years, and before the last election helped organize Taibeh’s youth campaign for the Joint List, to which Hadash had belonged. He, too, is sitting out the upcoming election.

Rahman says he sees voting in the elections and the presence of Arab parties in the Knesset as legitimizing the occupation, which he says will be used later for propaganda abroad. As he sees it, the Arab parties proved that their being in the Knesset does not hasten the end of the occupation and their attempt to stand by their principles failed both “when they voted for racist laws and when they faced right-wing leaders in the country. The Arab parties impaired the trust of the people they claim to represent, and that is what makes the boycott a correct decision.”

Janan Bsoul, 32, of Tel Aviv, translator.

Janan Bsoul, 32, of Tel Aviv, hasn’t voted since the April 2019 election. Among the reasons for this, she cites the four general elections in the past three years, starting in April 2019, that ended with similar results, the political and social stagnation and her feeling that ordinary Israelis lack influence. “Those with vested interests have a much stronger affect than the slip I put in the ballot box, and this creates a feeling of frustration,” she says.

Bsoul adds that the realization that there are no left-wing parties in Israel, as she sees it, contributed to her decision. “When you’re young it’s easy to think that fighting the occupation equals the left, but over time I realized that’s not the point,” she explains. “There is no left in Israel, period. What there is are ultranationalist parties that wrap themselves in a mantle that looks like the left. The Zionist left, by definition, does not represent me. But the Arab parties are also far from the left. They’re ultranationalist parties that aren’t perceived as such because of their being ‘underdogs’ and the fact that they carry the banner of the war on the occupation.”

“Balad, she says, “is clearly a right-wing party, the Islamic Movement is in essence right-wing and so is the United Arab List,” which is associated with the movement. “That leaves Hadash, which by definition is a left-wing party on social and diplomatic issues,” the latter usually a reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “But in recent years, with its joining up with the other parties in the Joint List, together with the situation in Israel and the need to be constantly ‘putting out fires’, it also increasingly comes off like another nationalist Arab party. You don’t hear them addressing issues of gender or gender minorities, they barely mention the issue of Palestinian LGBTQ people, not to mention ecological issues,” Bsoul says.

The next election will be the first time that Jihad Badr, 33, of Kafr Qasem, won’t vote and he calls on all Arab citizens of Israel to do the same. He explains that in the past, Arabs voted for parties from across the political spectrum, but their situation remains dire: “There is a Jewish takeover of Jerusalem with the aim of dispossessing its Arab residents, the Arab residents of the Negev are being deliberately pushed into populated areas while at the same time Jews are taking over their lands and Arabs don’t receive police protection,” he explains.

Like Zoabi, Badr believes a boycott is the only option. “Only about half of Arabs who are eligible to vote exercise that right, so if we’re determined to effect change we must start with an election boycott,” Badr says. “The world believes that in Israel the Arabs are citizens with equal rights even though the law says that we are not and the state is Jewish first and only then ‘democratic’ – if indeed it is democratic.”

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