Turnout low, and Palestinians divided, after Israel elections

Some 55 percent of eligible Palestinian voters in Israel participated in parliamentary elections.

Election center, Umm al-Fahm
In Umm al-Fahm most residents did not vote in Israel's parliamentary elections [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Umm al-Fahm, Israel – Omayya Jabareen spent the morning of the Israeli elections preparing traditional zaatar pastries for breakfast.

Surrounded by family and friends in her home on the winding slopes of Umm al-Fahm – one of the largest Palestinian towns in Israel – the 51-year-old said she does not believe in voting in Israeli elections.

“I’ve never voted, and I didn’t vote this time,” she told Al Jazeera from her home earlier in the week, as the country voted for parliament on Tuesday. “Arab members of the Knesset [the Israeli parliament] are merely a cosmetic face for Israeli dominance and racism.”

The problems faced by the majority of the 1.8 million Palestinians inside Israel, she said, such as crime and overcrowding, are “a result of systematic policies practised against us by the state of Israel. They will remain as long as it remains in existence.”

Whether for political reasons, or a mere lack of interest, Jabareen was one of many Palestinians in Israel who chose not to vote in this year’s elections, which are Israel’s fifth in under four years due to a protracted political crisis since 2019.

The final results came in on Thursday, with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud – Israel’s largest party – set to return after being unseated in 2021 after 12 years in power.

This year, Netanyahu ran alongside far-right controversial figures who openly call for violence against Palestinians, including Itamar Ben-Gvir – notorious for his harassment of families in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and leading raids into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

“I feel bad about the results,” said Kamila Tayyoun, a media officer for the Palestinian political bloc led by Ayman Odeh. The alliance, which ran in the elections and won five seats, is made up of the Arab Movement for Change party and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, known in Hebrew as the Hadash-Ta’al list.

A Netanyahu government, Tayyoun told Al Jazeera, “Will be very bad on the Palestinian level,” describing it as “racist” and “having a campaign by political parties largely built on the hatred and demonisation of Arabs”.

“The situation is not comforting,” added Tayyoun, who hails from Shaab on the outskirts of Akka (Acre) in the north.

A woman sits on an armchair
Omayya Jabareen says Palestinian members in the Knesset are just a ‘cosmetic face for “Israeli racism’ [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

A breakdown of Palestinian voter turnout

Voter turnout among Palestinians in Israel has historically ranged between 40-50 percent, and the majority of those who vote do so for parties led by Arab politicians.

In Tuesday’s election, Palestinian voter turnout stood at approximately 55 percent, which, according to analysts, was higher than what was expected, but represented a drop from previous years when Arab parties ran together under the Joint List alliance.

“The Arab lists were divided and ran separately. Campaigning and competition over the last few days before elections, and the fear of Ben-Gvir and his party, increased the level of voting, but not by a high degree,” Saeed Zidani, a political analyst from the town of Tamra on the northwestern outskirts of Haifa, told Al Jazeera.

This year, three Palestinian blocs ran for elections, with two passing the national electoral threshold of 3.25 percent, equivalent to four seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. The parties running had to obtain about 157,000 votes to get the four seats.

In terms of the number of votes, Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List (UAL), which was criticised for joining former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government last year, garnered the most with 190,000 votes. The majority of those votes came from Palestinian Bedouins living in the Naqab (Negev) desert.

“The UAL got the most votes but it lost the most in terms of the influence it was hoping to have,” said Zidani. “Neither Netanyahu nor the other camp needs it any more. Netanyahu can form a government without it, and the opposition cannot form a government neither with it nor without it.”

The third Palestinian slate that ran, Tajamu (also known as Balad in Hebrew), did enjoy increased support and popularity this election, but did not translate that to seats.

The party leader, Sami Abu Shehadeh, who hails from al-Lydd (Lod), had a key role in connecting with the Palestinian street during the May 2021 Palestinian uprising inside Israel, during which widespread confrontations broke out with Israeli forces as a result of forced displacement in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah and a war on the besieged Gaza Strip.

“The Tajamu party gathered their strength and there was increased popular regard for them among Palestinians in this election, despite their loss,” Zidani said, noting that they had needed only 18,000 more votes to pass the national election threshold.

Do Palestinians believe in the Knesset?

Jewish Israeli turnout is believed to have surpassed 70 percent, a significant gap in comparison with Palestinian voter turnout.

Zidani noted that Palestinians have no problem voting – in municipal elections, turnout is regularly higher than 90 percent – but the feeling is different when it comes to the parliament, and turnout is always much lower.

Palestinians make up about 20 percent of the population in Israel and carry Israeli passports. They became an involuntary minority during the violent ethnic cleansing of Palestine from 1947 to 1949 to create a “Jewish state”.

The policies practised against them, described as “discriminatory” by human rights groups, have led to Palestinian areas in Israel suffering from a myriad number of problems, such as restrictions on land ownership, high crime rates, and home demolitions.

Umm al-Fahm, which lies in the northern Triangle area, is the third largest concentration of Palestinians inside Israel – home to 60,000 residents – after Nazareth city in the north, and Rahat city in the Naqab.

It is known for being the home of the now-outlawed northern branch of the Islamic Movement, which split in 1996 from the southern branch – now the UAL – over the decision to participate in Israeli elections.

Considerably less than half of the almost 40,000 eligible voters in Umm al-Fahm participated in elections on Tuesday, according to the results, with participation at the lowest of the three largest Palestinian areas.

Ahmad Khalifa is the head of the popular committee in Umm al-Fahm, and a member of Abnaa el-Balad’s political office – another Palestinian party that boycotted the elections.

Khalifa told Al Jazeera that he believed voter turnout among Palestinians, along with Netanyahu’s return, showed that many Palestinians believed that politics is more than just the parliament.

“Palestinians have understood that the Knesset is not the place we go to solve our larger problems, or where we go to build a national project, and it is not the place where you can prevent fascism or right-wing parties,” Khalifa said.

Khalifa added that, for Abnaa el-Balad, and for the Palestinians who think like them, the events of May 2021, cannot simply be pacified by participation in elections.

“Our political context goes against the project of cornering us into Israeli politics and into the Israeli public as citizens.

“The two-state solution has failed. Israel forced it to fail by increasing settlement building, by taking over Jerusalem, by preventing the return of refugees,” Khalifa continued.

Those who did vote in Umm al-Fahm are not necessarily opposed to Abnaa el-Balad’s reading of the situation – however, they feel that there may be some improvements in day-to-day life, as well as crime and overcrowding.

And on top of that, some feel that the representation of Palestinians in Israel’s highest legislative body is important.

“To me, it’s enough that our candidates … will merely bring up the issue of the Palestinian people and put forth Palestinian national and civil issues here,” Hussein Mustafa Mahameed, a dentist, said.

“[But] as Palestinians in this state, I believe to the utmost extent, that our civil problems will not be solved without solving the wider issue of the Palestinian people,” said Mahameed. “Any government that comes will fight the Palestinian people, and we are part of the Palestinian people.”

Source: Al Jazeera