Palestinian-Israeli turnout to hit record low

Voter turnout expected to decrease among Israel's Arab citizens as frustration grows within community.

    Palestinian-Israeli turnout to hit record low
    Palestinian-Israeli politician Ahmed Tibi cites "frustration and apathy" for declining turnout [Reuters]

    Abu Ghosh, Israel - Campaigning for a seat in Israel's Knesset, Basel Ghattas walks through the predominantly Palestinian-Israeli village of Abu Ghosh, shaking hands and smiling as young supporters wave party flags and old men smoke and drink soda, awaiting his speech.

    "I want to create more economic growth for Arabs in Israel and to improve zoning and planning issues," he told Al Jazeera before the rally 10km west of Jerusalem. A few dozen men clap politely as he begins his speech; it's an unremarkable scene typical of political rallies the world over.

    Despite the appearance of normality, Ghattas and other Palestinian-Israeli politicians are worried Tuesday's election could mark an unsettling shift. Turnout among their base is expected hit its lowest level ever, dropping below 50 percent from 75 percent in 1999 and 91 percent in 1955.

    "A lot of Arabs will not go to vote," Mohammud Mugrabi, a Palestinian-Israeli hip-hop artist, told Al Jazeera. "The politicians don't have the same mindset as us. They are just fighting about money and keeping their chairs in the government."

    'Frustration and apathy'

    Ethnic Arabs constitute about 20 percent of Israel's population. They travel on Israeli passports and have full rights to vote in elections, but many complain of systematic discrimination. The poverty rate for Arab citizens of Israel is nearly three times higher than that of Jewish citizens, according to research from historian Eli Rekhes.

    In February, the International Monetary Fund warned that high unemployment among Palestinian-Israelis and the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jewish minority were a risk to Israel's economic stability.

    "Our brothers and cousins are in the West Bank and we do not accept the situation there; we are all the same Palestinians"

    - Aladdin Jaber, activist and principal

    "It seems that frustration, apathy and nonchalant behaviour [from some politicians] are the main reasons why people are saying they won't participate in the elections," Ahmed Tibi, a high-profile Palestinian-Israeli politician and Knesset member told Al Jazeera. "Racism has become mainstream in Israeli society."

    Currently, there are 17 Arab politicians in Israel's 120-member Knesset.

    Not voting, Tibi said, will only benefit the largest party, which is almost certain to be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud Yisrael Beiteinu alliance. "When Nelson Mandela was in jail [during the apartheid era in South Africa], activists were killed to achieve the right to vote; people died for that," Tibi said, trying to rally the troops for a larger turnout.

    Bread-and-butter issues

    Despite rhetorical flourishes from legislators, some Palestinian-Israelis blame petty bickering among Arab politicians and a lack of attention paid to bread-and-butter issues, rather than alleged discrimination, for declining turnouts.

    "I want someone who will give me a better salary; these politicians aren't doing much," Abdu, a Palestinian-Israeli policeman who didn't want his last name published, told Al Jazeera. Politicians representing Israel's Arab minority should be focused on improving roads and schools, he said, but instead they spend their time pontificating about the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

    Working for the security forces in Abu Ghosh, a town where relations between Arabs and Jews are generally better than in the rest of the country, Abdu's perspective isn't shared by other Palestinian-Israelis.

    "Our brothers and cousins are in the West Bank and we do not accept the situation there; we are all the same Palestinians," Aladdin Jaber, a school principal and political activist in Abu Ghosh told Al Jazeera.

    Palestinians in the occupied territories cannot vote in Israeli elections and their daily movements are controlled by the Israeli state through a series of checkpoints.  

    Divergent agendas

    In the north of Israel, some analysts expect Islamic parties to make electoral gains among the Palestinian-Israeli minority.

    "The Arab Spring - what they did in Egypt - gives Arabs in the north hope and a feeling of strength," Sami Masrwe, a bus driver who each day ferries Palestinian-Israelis from the north to Jerusalem, told Al Jazeera.

    Despite this inspiration from foreign shores, more than 90 percent of Palestinian-Israelis consider daily concerns such as crime, employment and discrimination their main issues, rather than the occupation of the West Bank, according to a study by Haifa University researcher Asad Ghanem.  

    "Arabs and Jews are facing the same issue - [the need for] work," Ali Jaber, a cable technician, told Al Jazeera. "We need more Arabs in the Knesset."

    A 2012 survey by Sammy Smooha at Haifa University found that 60 percent of Arab citizens view Israel as their homeland. No less than 71 percent of respondents described Israel as a good place to live, but 73 percent felt the government treated Palestinian-Israelis as second-class citizens.

    "The Arabs [who are citizens of Israel] feel like their economic situation is worsening and racism is increasing," Suheir Daoud, a politics professor studying the conditions of Palestinian-Israelis, told Al Jazeera. "There is a continual mistrust of what Arabs can achieve in the Knesset," she said, anticipating that voter turnout would decrease compared with past elections.

    'Unfair' comparisons

    Palestinian-Israelis have reasonably high outcomes for income, health and quality of life when compared with Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip. But Daoud believes such a comparison is unfair.

    "If we [Palestinians] live in the same country [as Jews], then we should enjoy the same standards," she said.

    "Here in Israel, there is discrimination in every field of life, industry, budgets [and] agriculture."

    - Ahmed Tibi, politician

    While the majority of Palestinian-Israelis are Muslim, others are Druze, Christian or from other groups.

    One Palestinian-Israeli from the Druze community is a Knesset member representing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.

    If the Palestinian-Israeli parties formed a serious alliance with the parties considered centre-left in Israel, they could become a strong force on the national scene. But mutual distrust seems to be rising.

    "Many years ago, I voted for Likud, which started in 1973 as a grouping of centrist parties and is now led by hardliner Netanyahu," Masrwe, the bus driver, said. "Eight or ten years ago, things changed. These people [Israel's leading Jewish politicians] don't like Arabs, so now I vote for the Arab parties."

    'Equity' at the ballot box

    As Israeli society lurches to the right, some politicians are questioning the loyalty of Palestinian-Israelis and the parties representing them.

    Right-wing lawmakers attempted to ban Hanin Zoabi, an outspoken Palestinian-Israeli Knesset member, from running in the upcoming elections.

    In 2010, she enraged conservative politicians by sailing on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship that was bringing supplies to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip, before Israeli commandos boarded the vessel and killed nine activists.

    As part of what her supporters see as a campaign of right-wing racism, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Zoabi of having a "zoological hatred for the state in which she grew up".

    Danny Danon, another conservative politician, said Zoabi "belongs in jail" rather than in the parliament.

    Israel's Supreme Court ruled in favour of Zoabi in December, allowing her to run in Tuesday's election, despite a series of legal challenges to her candidacy by the far-right.

    Conservative politicians have promised to change the law, in an attempt to nullify the court decision. Zoabi's supporters see the campaigns against her as an example of systematic oppression.  

    "Here in Israel, there is discrimination in every field of life, industry, budgets [and] agriculture." Tibi said. "There is one place where there is equity - in elections, Jews and Arabs are equal. The people who do not vote, they should ask themselves why the right is trying to have us [Arab politicians] kicked out of the Knesset?"

    Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter as he reports on Israel's election: @AJEchris

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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