Haifa – Sitting in his Haifa home, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter, veteran left-wing activist Samieh Jabbarin lit a cigarette and said he has never cast a ballot in Israeli elections.
The 47-year-old translator recalled joining the left-wing Abna al-Balad (Sons of the Land) movement when he was just 17 years old. Along with the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Abna al-Balad’s supporters boycott participation in the Israeli Knesset and reject Israel’s classification as a Jewish state.
No longer active in Abna al-Balad, Jabbarin is still today advocating for Palestinians in Israel to boycott the upcoming elections. “I think it’s vital to boycott [the elections] because it is a matter of reasserting the identity of the Arab Palestinians in the 48 territories,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to present-day Israel.
“If we understand Zionism, we have to mistrust the so-called democracy of Israel,” Jabbarin added. “Israel uses the fact that Palestinian [citizens of Israel] participate in elections to whitewash its reputation in the world.”
After sacking two ministers in early December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced new parliamentary elections for March 17.
An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians – comprising Muslims, Christians and Druze – carry Israeli citizenship, but are subject to dozens of laws that stifle their political expression and limit access to state resources, according to the Haifa-based Adalah Legal Centre. Though it is unclear how many potential voters actively boycott elections and how many simply do not cast their ballots, the trend has gained increasing attention in recent years.
It is a very sensitive issue here. Polls suggest that more than 50 percent of Palestinians in Israel still believe we should vote and have representation in the Knesset.
Jabbarin says the aforementioned laws have fuelled Palestinians’ rejection of the electoral process.
“Popular struggle on the streets has always been more effective at stopping the state’s confiscation of land, demolishing homes and cancelling racist laws,” he said. “No matter how many seats they take, the Palestinian parties in the Knesset will never make a significant difference for their people simply because they are not Jewish.”
Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, an Arab youth advocacy group in Haifa, says the debate over voting has been intensifying in recent years.
“It is a very sensitive issue here,” he told Al Jazeera. “Polls suggest that more than 50 percent of Palestinians in Israel still believe we should vote and have representation in the Knesset.”
In March 2014, the Knesset passed a law raising the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent, putting Palestinian political parties in Israel in a bind. As separate parties, each stood little chance of meeting this criterion, which translates into obtaining at least four seats.
In order to avoid being effectively excluded from the legislative process, four Arab-majority parties earlier this year reached a historic agreement designed to gain the maximum potential number of seats in the Knesset, and created the United Arab List.
Yisrael Beitenu, the right-wing party of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has called for the electoral alliance to be disqualified “in order to avoid an absurd situation in which members of the Knesset act against the state”, according to a party statement.
But it is not just right-wing Israeli groups that oppose the new unified Arab list. The Democratic Arab Party, a smaller party composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, said it would not participate in the united list. In a statement, the party said it took this decision “to fulfil the aspirations of the people in a true unity that respects the volition of Arab people in making an impact and creating change”.
Perhaps more significant are the political independents, such as Minem Marouf, a 30-year-old Palestinian rights activist and boycott supporter from the Galilee region. Though he has never voted, Marouf says he became a vocal boycott proponent during the 2009 Knesset elections that landed Netanyahu back in the prime minister’s office.
Marouf alluded to the 2013 elections as “a turning point”. Although turnout remained high, he told Al Jazeera, “more people from civil society became vocal about [boycotting elections], and we were very active on social media to explain our position”.
For Marouf, boycotting elections is the first step towards building a united Palestinian national movement that includes Palestinians in Israel, those in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and the millions of refugees scattered across the map of the Middle East. Noting that the Israeli police have killed 50 Palestinian citizens of Israel since 2000, Marouf said that Palestinian Knesset members exert “no influence” on the ground and are unable to “even slow down” discrimination and state violence.
But it remains unclear whether such arguments are resonating with most Palestinians in Israel. During the 2013 elections, 56 percent of eligible Palestinian voters cast their ballots. A new study published by the Israeli daily Haaretz suggests that turnout this year may exceed that of the last election, indicating that 62 percent of Arabs are expected to vote.
Hanin Zoabi, a senior member of the Balad political party, worries that individual boycotts could be harmful for Israel’s minority of Palestinian citizens. “Boycotting has to be a collective decision and unified strategy in order to work,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We have to have alternatives, or it will only result in Palestinians being disempowered,” Zoabi added. “A boycott on its own could lead to Arabs voting for liberal Zionist parties.”
Though still a minority view among Palestinians in Israel, it is difficult to predict the future of the boycott movement, said Asad Ghanem, a senior lecturer at Haifa University’s school of politics.
“The elections boycott trend started in 2001,” Ghanem told Al Jazeera, estimating that around 80 percent of the Arab minority boycotted the elections that year due to Israel’s harsh crackdown on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza during the second Intifada. “Since then the level of participation has grown, but it’s been very slow.”
According to Ghanem, the continuing rightward drift of Israel’s political establishment could help boycotters take their message into the mainstream – but it would also require a new generation of Palestinian leadership in Israel.
Jabbarin says he is optimistic about the future of the movement.
“We are comparatively weak right now,” he said. “Yet, I see small seeds of hope that are growing among young people who are sick of our political parties and their conservative and tired strategies.”