Nazareth, Israel – As Israeli politicians shift their attention to preparing for an upcoming election race, many of the country’s Palestinian citizens feel that there is little hope for change, and little incentive to participate altogether.
“The frustration from lack of participation in real governmental processes, not only to vote for the Knesset [Israeli parliament], but really to have a say in the government itself, led the Arab community to create a discourse of, ‘Why we should care?'” explained Jafar Farah, Director of the Mossawa Center, an advocacy center for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced last week that his ruling Likud party would merge with the ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu, led by hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The move came after Netanyahu set early parliamentary elections, to be held on January 22, 2013.
The decision to hold the elections early was made, Netanyahu said, “for the benefit of Israel”. Most recent opinion polls show Netanyahu continuing on as prime minister, and leading a right-wing coalition government.
Voting versus boycotting
There are approximately 1.6 million Palestinian citizens in Israel, representing some 20 per cent of the total population. Palestinian citizens constitute one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country; an estimated 54 per cent of Palestinian families in Israel were classified as poor in 2009, compared to a general average of 20.5 per cent.
Palestinians are currently represented in the Knesset by three main political parties: the National Democratic Assembly (commonly known as Balad, or al-Tajamu’ in Arabic), the joint Jewish-Palestinian Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (known as “alJabha” in Arabic and “Hadash” in Hebrew) and the United Arab List, which encompasses various groups, including the southern Islamic movement.
It is estimated that 50 per cent of Palestinians voted in the 2009 Israeli elections, down from 75 per cent in 1999.
|Activist Heba Yazbak feels voting serves a purpose for Palestinians in Israel [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]|
“I think that we have to have a voice and a say here in this state as Palestinian citizens,” said Heba Yazbak, a 27-year-old Palestinian activist from Nazareth and member of the Balad party’s central committee. “I want to be there as opposition. I want to influence. I want all the people to know that I am here. I’m living here. I’m still here. I am a citizen here and I’m still Palestinian.”
Some, however, see voting as something with strictly negative consequences.
“Voting is demolishing Palestinian identity. It’s destroying our rights as natives of this land and contributing to the fake democracy of Israel and making Israel prettier,” said Thaira Zoabi, a Haifa-based Palestinian political activist, and member of the Public Committee for Boycotting the Israeli Knesset.
Half of the Islamic movement in Israel already rejects the Israeli political process. Divided into two branches, the northern branch, led by Sheikh Raed Salah, advocates for a boycott, while the southern branch, led by MK Ibrahim Sarsur, head of the United Arab List, votes.
According to Zoabi, support for actively boycotting Israeli politics for political reasons is growing within the Palestinian community.
“We can see nothing happening. The walls are becoming bigger, the settlements are increasing, there are more house demolitions and Palestinians are poorer,” she said. “You don’t use the tool of the occupier to become free and have your rights.”
Israel has long touted the ability of Palestinian citizens to vote as an example of its democracy. But since 1985, changes to the law regulating political participation have become increasingly restrictive, and seem to target the state’s Palestinian community.
An amendment passed in 1985 to the “Basic Law”: The Knesset (1958)” states that a candidate list cannot participate in Israeli elections, “if its aims or actions, expressly or by implication, point to one of the following: (1) denial of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people: (2) denial of the democratic nature of the state; and (3) incitement to racism.”
More recent changes allow for disqualifying political candidates and parties if they deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or if they support armed struggle by a hostile state or terrorist group against Israel.
“There is no serious evidence to justify disqualifying Arab political parties based on Israeli law.”
– Hasan Jabareen – Adalah General Director and lawyer
Individuals who have visited so-called “enemy states” – which include Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran – without permission from the Israeli Interior Ministry are also ineligible to run for office.
Israel’s Central Elections Committee (CEC) – a committee formed by members of the Knesset and a Supreme Court Justice – is the body that can disqualify a person or political party from running.
“There is no serious evidence to justify disqualifying Arab political parties based on Israeli law,” Hasan Jabareen, the director of Adalah – a legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel – told Al Jazeera, explaining that despite this, he expects the Balad party, and Palestinian member of the Knesset Haneen Zoabi, to be disqualified sometime before next year’s vote.
The Jerusalem Post reported on October 25 that right-wing Israeli member of the Knesset Danny Danon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, had already gathered 10,000 signatures demanding that Zoabi be banned from the elections.
“We will not allow the appropriation of democracy in order to hurt the state from within,” Danon, reportedly said in a statement. “Zoabi used her immunity in order to support a terrorist struggle aimed at killing Israeli soldiers. There is no room for someone like this in Israel’s Knesset – her place is in a jail.”
But according to Jabareen, despite this rhetoric, Israel has a strong interest to keep Palestinian lawmakers in the Knesset. “Imagine a Knesset without Arabs. It would be a Beit Knesset [the Hebrew term for synagogue]. You control five million Palestinians with no Arab in the Knesset? That means Apartheid,” Jabareen said.
The upcoming Israeli elections come at a time when a handful of Palestinian parliamentarians are fighting against what they view as politically motivated lawsuits.
Palestinian member of the Knesset Mohammad Barakeh, leader of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, is currently facing criminal charges in an Israeli court. Barakeh has been accused of assaulting and insulting an Israeli police officer and right-wing activist during political demonstrations in Israel and the West Bank.
Balad party lawmaker Said Naffa has also been indicted for allegedly contacting terrorist groups during a 2007 visit to Syria he conducted without the permission of the Israeli interior ministry.
Haneen Zoabi has particularly borne the brunt of repeated verbal attacks from right-wing lawmakers since she was elected in 2009 as the first woman to represent a Palestinian political party. She has been called a traitor and an embarrassment, and her parliamentary privileges were revoked after her participation in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010.
Last week, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that, according to a recent survey, one-third of Jewish Israelis said they support barring Palestinian citizens from voting for the Knesset, while 49 per cent believe the state should care more for its Jewish citizens than others.
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that Palestinian citizens of Israel are becoming increasingly disinterested in the electoral process.
“I feel that next government will be more racist and more right-wing,” said Aziz Al-Touri, a resident of Al-Araqib, a Bedouin village that the Israeli authorities have demolished more than 40 times since July 2010.
In one of three dozen so-called “unrecognised” Bedouin villages throughout the Negev, Israel’s southern desert region, Al-Araqib residents are deemed illegal squatters by the state. They are denied basic services, such as water and electricity, and face a near-constant threat of police violence, destruction and evictions.
“I feel that most of the people here, when we’re speaking together, they are feeling that [voting] gives Israel [the image that it is] a famous democracy,” Al-Touri told Al Jazeera. “I think it will be better if we continue our struggle and continue to stand up and continue sumoud [to persevere]. It’s not so important for me to vote.”