Arabs split between vote and boycott

Those who say they won't cast ballot cite frustration over lack of influence and Gaza fighting.

elections2009_248 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Umm el-Fahm restaurant owner Atef Laham said on Tuesday he would be casting his vote for "an Arab party" for the first time in his life. Usually a supporter of the left-wing Zionist Meretz Party, Laham said he was planning to vote for the predominantly Arab Hadash Party because of the Knesset Elections Committee's ban - later overturned by the High Court of Justice - to disqualify two other Arab parties, Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al. It was a ban Laham took personally. "These feelings are not right," he said. "We don't make trouble. We don't kill Jews. We don't do anything. We welcome anyone who wants to come here. I don't have any problems with the Jews." But it was also Meretz's stance during Israel's three-week military operation in the Gaza Strip - which Laham termed "genocide" - that encouraged him to decide to cast his vote elsewhere. "Where were the parties that I used to vote for?" he said. "We didn't hear from them during the war." While Laham nevertheless considers it his duty to vote in Tuesday's elections, his 26-year-old son Orwa has decided to stay away from the polls for the first time since he began to vote. The reason, he said, is that the Israeli government "exploits the elections" to convince the world that it is a free and democratic country. "Israel describes itself as a democratic state, but it isn't at all," he said while taking a break from work at his father's restaurant. "It fights the Arab minority, and at the same time fights the phenomenon of anti-Semitism throughout the world." An Arab-Israeli accountant who identified herself only as Amal said that she, too, had decided to boycott the elections for the first time in her life. The main reason, she said, was because of Israel's operation in Gaza, which she described as "exaggerated" and "war crimes." She also said she was dismayed with the lack of influence that Arab parties had in the Israeli political system. "It's nice that the Arab Israelis are represented in the Knesset, but they can't change any decision," she said. "The Jews are the ones that are in control. We are a minority." Arab candidates have worked hard during the current campaign to counter calls for boycotts and encourage people to vote. On Sunday, leaders of Hadash, United Arab List-Ta'al and Balad issued a joint call over the Nazareth-based a-Shams radio for their constituents to get out and vote. "Together, we called upon the Arab population to go out and participate in the coming elections, to serve the highest interest of the Arab population inside Israel," said MK Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, of United Arab List-Ta'al. Sarsour added that while the three parties had previously issued such calls separately, this was the first time they had done so jointly. In the last decade, there was a severe drop in the voting rates of Arab Israelis in Knesset elections to 56% in 2006, the lowest ever recorded for the sector, according to Elie Rekhess, on leave as director of Tel Aviv University's Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation. In a report issued by the Adenauer Program this week, Rekhess wrote that the reasons for the drop included disappointment with the achievements of Arab MKs, mistrust of the parliamentary process or its effectiveness, ideological or religious stances, and anti-establishment protest. A 37-year-old woman who identified herself only as Majda said she would make sure to vote for an Arab party on Tuesday, although she still hadn't decided which one. "The most important thing is to vote for an Arab party and against the Jews," she said. "Against the racists and against the massacre that they did in Gaza." Twenty-one year old Miriam Ali, an employee at a grocery store near the entrance to Umm el-Fahm, said she would vote for Hadash. "Those who don't vote are giving their votes to Israel... to the Zionist Jewish parties," she said.