On Israeli elections, the PA and disappearing Palestinians

Palestinian citizens of Israel have grown increasingly disenchanted with an election process that alienates them.

An Arab Israeli woman looks at pictures
It is estimated that during the 'Nakba' of 1948, hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated or destroyed [AFP]

Recent statements by the Palestinian Authority declaring premonitions of the coming of an apartheid state in the likely event that Binyamin Netanyahu is re-elected have left many observers scratching their heads and questioning, yet again, the relevance of the nearly two decades-old titular government of the occupied Palestinian territories. Its irrelevance appearing firmly established to anyone paying attention, statements like these attest to a more disturbing estrangement from reality.

According to an Associated Press article published on January 19, “Palestinian officials have been closely following the Israeli election campaign, fearing Netanyahu’s ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could prove lethal to their dreams of a state.”

Yet PA concerns over which Zionist party ascends to the Israeli Knesset are not shared by the majority of Palestinian citizens of the State – the only Palestinians living under Israeli rule who actually have a vote.

Palestinian participation in Israeli elections for Parliament have dwindled over the past decade. In 2001, Palestinian voter turnout reached a historic low of 18 percent due to an organised electoral boycott after the October 2000 killings of 13 Palestinian citizens by Israeli forces and the outbreak of the second intifada. Turnout bounced back in 2003, rising to 62 percent but has steadily decreased over the last two elections to 56 percent and 53 percent in 2006 and 2009, respectively. Now some polls estimate that as little as 28 percent of Palestinian citizens will show up to the polls, while more cautious – or optimistic – predictions put the number at just under half the electorate.

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According to the Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, Palestinians are abstaining from the vote not only in deliberate protest, but because their tangible experience leads them to the understandable conviction that the Knesset will never represent them or serve their interests.  

Consider these facts: since 2011, 35 pieces of discriminatory legislation have been submitted to the Knesset; between 2011 and 2012 elected representatives and community leaders directed 60 racist actions against non-Jews (most of them Palestinians); as of 2012, 27 percent of Palestinian homes remain without a sewage system; a mere four percent of city planning budgets are allocated to minority communities; and three times more money is allotted to Jewish students than their Palestinian/Arab counterparts. This is just a handful of the reasons why 79 percent of Palestinian citizens say they have no confidence in the Knesset, according to one Haifa University study.

Notably, the above AP article also reported that the PA President’s office has been meeting with leaders from Israel’s “centrist” opposition parties, including Labour, during which they all wrung their hands and bemoaned the decreasing plausibility and popularity of a two-state solution.

Daniel Ben-Simon, a Parliamentarian for Labour, told the AP that “Abbas said the two-state solution benefits both nations but he warned that if there is no two-state solution within the next two or three years then it won’t be practical anymore… Abbas told me explicitly… the idea of a one-state solution is escalating among Palestinians.”

So it appears the Palestinian Authority is just as vested in the dying embers of a two-state solution as the centrist-opposition parties in Israel. According to Nazareth-based journalist, Jonathan Cook, writing for The Electronic Intifada, the “centre-left” opposition parties have recently begun to worry about the increasingly disillusioned Palestinian population only because they need it in order to bolster their own political leverage as an opposition bloc. Furthermore, Cook argues, “The parties’ claim to left-wing or centrist credentials derives from their emphasis on reducing the tensions that Netanyahu has allowed to escalate between Israel and its sponsors, the US and the European Union. The centre-left is concerned about Israel’s image abroad and making the necessary concessions – including reviving an endless peace process with the Palestinians – to prevent a further deterioration in Israel’s strategic position.”

And so we face the discomfiting reality that the PA and the centrists of Israel find common ground, both wishing to roll back the developments of the past year that has seen increased calls by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for resistance to Israeli colonialism as well as a one-state solution and an end to mendacious “peace talks” – in other words, a movement that threatens the relevance of both these political institutions, their lifeblood being revived at the same source.

Returning to relevance

The denial and erasure of Palestinian history continues to range from the grotesque, such as overtly racist sentiments including the stale – but still trotted out – claim that “Palestinians are an invented people”, to rabid and equally racist popular political rhetoric that would see Palestinians stripped of their Israeli citizenship, to the personally expedient – like Mahmoud Abbas’ promotion of one Zionist party over another for the purpose of keeping his job.

Within the ugly spectacle of an increasingly right-wing, racist Israeli government, it is heartening to see a spectre of humanity: a day after the election a new photographic exhibit will open, sponsored by Zochrot, an organisation dedicated to remembrance of the Nakba. The exhibit will feature photos taken over the last ten years that document the Palestinian city, Jisr al-Zarqa. Standing in stark contrast to the electoral sideshow, this exhibit will doubtless illuminate significant Palestinian history but may also provide ample insight into why Palestinian citizens of Israel will stay home on Tuesday.

Jisr al-Zarqa is one of two Palestinian villages on Israel’s Mediterranean coast that survived the Nakba. It lies just north of the affluent Jewish city, Qisarya, which is built atop the first Palestinian village to be destroyed in 1948, its 1,500 residents expelled in the course of a few hours. According to Ilan Pappe, Jisr al-Zarqa was spared only for the sake of the nearby newly established Jewish settlements, its residents to be used as a source of “unskilled” labour.

Today, Jisr al-Zarqa is one of the poorest communities in Israel and systematically isolated from the rest of the country. In 2002, the same year Israel built the Separation Wall, the Qisarya Development Company began constructing an earthen embankment to separate the city of Qisarya from Jisr al-Zarqa. In defence of their decision to build the ungainly barrier, the company said they wished to block out unwanted acoustic “hazards” such as the Muslim call to prayer, loud parties, or fireworks. They also said they wished to keep out the “scourge” of Jisr al-Zarqa that might easily “infiltrate” Qisarya.

Jisr al-Zarqa also remains the only coastal city that is disconnected from the main highway that connects Haifa to Tel Aviv, thus leaving the impoverished village dependent on a one- kilometre road that was deemed to be a safety hazard by the Road Safety Service. The State of Israel refuses to support the town’s once thriving fishing industry.

Jisr al-Zarqa is exemplary of Palestine’s scarred history after Zionism inflicted its brutal wounds. Zochrot’s exhibit will consist of photographs taken by Ron Amir, a young photographer who found his way to Jisr al-Zarqa – despite its utter isolation – in 1996. The photographs on display were taken during his ten years of weekly visits to the village. The photographs, taken under a variety of situations and sometimes at the request of the villagers, attest to and assert the life and reality of Palestinians in Israel.

Meanwhile, the State of Israel has done all it can to make Palestinians – inside or outside its borders – vanish, so it should not surprise anyone that come Tuesday, they will absent themselves from a farce of casting a vote in a system that wants, advocates for and enables their disappearance.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco and the West Bank. She is a graduate of Stanford University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @CharEsilver