Frustration keeps many Arabs home

"We cannot change the situation of the Arabs through the Knesset."

druze arab woman 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
druze arab woman 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The last time Maryam Ghanem, a young Israeli Arab woman from the village of Marje, voted she chose Meretz. This election, she's not voting for anyone. And neither will her husband. There were a myriad of reasons, said the young couple, but they could be illustrated through a simple sign, or the lack of one. Their small village lies on a road in an area known as the Triangle. But no sign exists pointing to its two entrances. Even Zemer, the union of four villages including Marje, has no sign. "It's as though we don't exist," said the 27-year-old mother of two, who has a degree in agricultural science. "Either it's because we are Arabs or it's because they don't care about us. That's racism." Across the Arab sector, from north to south, voter turnout is expected to be low. Polls say that between 54 percent and 64% of the 600,000 eligible voters will go to the polls. That number falls far below the Jewish sector, and many fear that it will result in the loss of mandates for Arabs in the Knesset. Raja Agbariyeh is happy about the low expected turnout and hopes it is even lower. "When Israeli Arabs go to the polls they give legitimacy to Israeli democracy even though the Arab MKs have little influence," said Agbariyeh, the chairman of the newly formed Popular Committee for the Boycott of the Knesset Elections. Agbariyeh said that other polls indicated that 22% of the Arab voters said they would not vote, which he said meant they had ideological or political reasons for doing so. The committee, whose supporters include academics, believes in the creation of a central political Arab body parallel to the Knesset. That body would be the Higher Follow-up Committee of the Arab Citizens, and its leaders would be chosen by direct elections, instead of by representatives of the sector as is currently the case. Dr. Assad Ghanem, a senior lecturer in Haifa University's School of Political Science, is a strong supporter of the boycott and the formation of a separate Arab body. "We cannot change the situation of the Arabs through the Knesset," he said at a recent conference at the university. "Do we continue to play the game that the Knesset wrote? The Arabs cannot stop the Judaization of the Negev and the Galilee without being organized." The movement also calls on developing and strengthening non-governmental organizations that serve Arab interests. The Arab political parties downplayed the popularity and influence of the movement. "Raja is the chairman of a movement that does not exist," said Barghoum Jaraise, the Hadash party spokesman. "He is alone and he has no ability to influence." A blow to the boycott movement was the decision by the northern faction of the Islamic Movement not to call on its followers to boycott. Its spokesman, Sheikh Hashem Abdul Rahman, said he too would vote. The southern faction of the Islamic Movement participates in the elections and had one MK in the 16th Knesset in a joint list with a Beduin MK, in the United Arab List. Sheikh Abu Anas Rahan, a representative in Nazareth, said, "It's wrong not to vote." He drives a white Fiat Punto with a flag of the Islamic Movement in Israel hanging from his antenna. "Our prophet Yusuf (Joseph) was a minister in a very corrupt Egyptian country," said Rahan, as he stopped on a Nazareth side street. "By being a minister, he could help the people." Jaafar Farah, of Mossawa, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, said there were three types of reasons Arabs would not vote in the election. "It's either a boycott for ideological reasons, apathy or a lack of belief in the political system," he said. Many voters said those reasons were related to the general lack of influence of the Arab MKs and the lack of improvement in Arab lives, both in infrastructure and unemployment. Some potential voters cited the increasingly vocal calls by Jewish MKs to remove them from the state. Dr. Ilana Kaufman, Coordinator of the MA program for Democracy Studies at the Open University, said a low turnout would come as no surprise. "From the period of military rule till today, the Arab vote has had no influence," she said. Kaufman pointed to the 1998 elections, which the Labor Party would not have won without the Arab vote. "But [then-prime minister Ehud] Barak did not even invite the Arabs to the coalition. He did not even invite them to polite discussions," she said. "The outcome was that the Palestinian minority in Israel developed frustration about their ability to influence." Another recurring problem in the Arab sector is the difficulty for voters from the unrecognized villages in the Negev to get to the polling stations. "There are 30,000 Beduin living in unrecognized villages who do not have proper access," said Jaraise. "Only 20% end up voting." For some, the extremist politics of Jewish MKs who call for getting rid of Israeli Arabs is an election turn-off. "I don't want to vote," said Muhammad Mahajneh, 22, as he sat in a felafel shop in Umm el-Fahm. "It doesn't help. What will I get out of it? Anyway, in another four years maybe we won't be able to vote because they will have transferred us [to a Palestinian state]. [The Jews] do what they want." A Haifa University poll said that voter turnout would be higher if the Arab parties had all united. Indeed, Maryam would have shown up at the polls. "If all the Arab MKs were in one list, I would vote for them," she said, "but they are dispersed over a few parties and have no influence." For her husband, however, it would change nothing. "Even if the Arab parties would unite they would still be ignored," he said. "Whoever forms the government never takes into account the Arab parties. They would prefer to take a right-wing party than to take us."