After four years of one of the most hostile governments for Palestinians in Israel, Arab citizens are debating whether participating in or boycotting the upcoming Knesset elections is the best way to advance their struggle.
By Henriette Chacar and Edo Konrad
Frustrated with the breakdown of internal Arab party politics, and beset by an endless stream of attacks by politicians from across the political spectrum, many Palestinian citizens of Israel are expressing reservations about voting in this week’s elections. Despite a historically high voter participation rate, a small but prominent movement is urging Palestinian citizens to boycott the vote.
The fierce debate pits Palestinians calling to boycott elections against those who see participating in the political system as one of the few tools available to them for contesting Israel’s persecution of Palestinians — both the 20 percent of its population Israel calls a “demographic threat” and the millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories who live under Israeli rule but cannot vote.
The debate is as old as Israel itself. But this year the calls to boycott have grown more prominent and heated than they have been in years. Activists have plastered posters across cities in Israel encouraging Palestinian citizens to stay home on Election Day, and prominent Palestinian politicians, journalists, and even hip hop stars have weighed in.
Palestinian hip hop star Tamer Nafar’s video on the boycott:
The ambivalence is striking, considering how electrified Palestinian citizens were in the run-up to the 2015 elections. After the Israeli right raised the electoral threshold in an attempt to keep Palestinian parties out, the four major Palestinian parties united on a single ticket in order to survive. The Joint List promised to prioritize the needs of Israel’s Palestinian citizens after decades of division and political infighting. It was a watershed moment for Palestinians in Israel — the Joint List won 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the most since the founding of the state.
The promise of unity, however, coincided with one of the most dangerous Israeli governments Palestinians citizens have ever seen. The last Netanyahu government sought to demolish entire villages, upheld laws to enshrine ethnic and racial segregation, and incited a new wave of racism against Arab citizens. Then, in June 2018, the Knesset passed the Jewish Nation-State Law, constitutionally enshrining Jewish supremacy in Israel. The crescendo came when the Joint List — which united Palestinian communists, Islamists, and nationalists — split in two.
“The minute they get more oppressive, we need to fight back even more strongly,” MK Aida Touma-Sliman from the Jewish-Arab Hadash party told +972 Magazine. The Palestinian community, as an “oppressed and persecuted minority,” needs to have representation in parliament, contended Touma-Sliman, if not to promote the rights and needs of Palestinians, then to “reveal the hypocrisy and the [government’s] racist approaches.”
“We are helping the general public understand that this is not democracy,” said Touma-Sliman.
Back to the drawing board
Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya, a social and political activist who lives in Taybeh, a small city in central Israel, believes that Palestinians abstaining from voting is what the right wing wants — “to pretend we don’t exist,” she explained. “Unfortunately, we’ve been delegitimized to such an extent that, today, even the left is willing to lose another round of elections rather than be associated with Arab voters.”
“I don’t blame [those boycotting the elections] because I know how difficult it is to vote when you know your ballot doesn’t mean anything,” said Hadad Haj-Yahya. Palestinians parties have always been in the opposition, which means they have never held any government positions, let alone any with much influence. “Morally, it’s very difficult to sit in a government that continues to oppress the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza.”
This is precisely why Hadad Haj-Yahya opposes the boycott. “This hopelessness, the sense that we will never succeed — it only makes us weaker. We don’t have the privilege to throw our hands in the air and say we’ll wait and see what happens in this country. We must take matters into our own hands and try to promote our interests,” she argued.
But for Palestinians calling to boycott, the struggle is about something bigger than just toppling the government. They reject the very idea of participating in an institution that embodies Jewish supremacy.
“If I participate in Knesset elections, that means I give them legitimacy,” said Nizar Hawari, a social and political organizer from Tarshiha, a town in the Galilee. Hawari, who is 58, said she has been boycotting Knesset elections since she became eligible to vote. Not even the Joint List spurred her to vote, which she said united Palestinian voters with the promise of greater representation, not a political vision.
If anything, Hawari added, voting has only made things worse by stalling popular struggles and creating “an obstacle to the Palestinian national liberation project.”
To Hawari, the alternative is a return to local, grassroots mobilization. The boycott movement represents a political awakening that could re-energize the Palestinian public and “bring our struggle back to the drawing board.” The campaign shouldn’t end on Tuesday, she asserted, and boycotters should “translate our principles into continuous action.”
Boycotters have plastered posters across cities in Israel calling on Palestinian citizens not to participate in Israel’s “military democracy.” Some have banded together in a group calling itself the Popular Campaign to Boycott the Elections of the Zionist Knesset.
“The Jewish state deprives us of our civil rights, not because of a shortage of those who claim to represent us in the Knesset, but because they deal with us as a demographic problem,” a post on the group’s Facebook page from late February said.
The organizers behind the boycott campaign declined to be interviewed for this article.
“Arab political parties are engaging in Israel’s colonial system and are undermining the real basis for liberation from colonialism, through the development of an alternative that involves all political, social, and economic tools,” another post argued.
Voting in droves
Despite what leaders across the political spectrum would have Jewish Israelis believe, Palestinian citizens have historically taken their citizenship and their right to vote seriously, said Hillel Cohen, who heads the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In the 18 years following Israel’s establishment, the nascent state put those Palestinians who were able to remain in the country after the 1948 war under a military regime that restricted their freedom of movement and expropriated their land.
While some wanted to completely or partially disenfranchise the new Arab citizens, Cohen explained, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion insisted they be given the right to vote, a decision he made partly in order to procure the support of the international community.
Ben-Gurion’s argument prevailed, said Cohen. And although the military government did not technically bar Arabs from voting, it severely interfered in the process, including by jailing or relocating activists in the run-up to elections.
At the same time, the Israeli leadership established a number of Arab satellite parties led by local leaders with strong ties to Mapai. Through those tightly-controlled parties, the government was able to ensure a high Arab voter turnout that would be a reliable source of support.
Average voter turnout among Palestinians hovered around 85 percent until the end of military rule. Yet even after they were no longer under the boot of the military government, Palestinians continued to participate in Israeli elections in relatively high numbers. In the late 1980s, Palestinian citizens formed the first non-satellite Arab parties, and in 1992 those independent Arab slates served as a parliamentary backing block to stabilize Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s minority government as he pushed the Oslo Accords through the Knesset.
Palestinian citizens have for the most part continued to participate in the democratic process over the years. However, Palestinian turnout took a plunge in the early 2000s after police shot dead 13 Palestinians — 12 of them citizens of Israel — in what has come to be known as the October 2000 events.
That often-deadly police violence, and lack of accountability, have profoundly shaped the Palestinian community in Israel in the years since. It took a decade and a half and the establishment of the Joint List to bring Palestinian voting numbers back to where they were before October 2000.
According to Yousef Makladeh, who heads Statnet, a research institute that focuses on Israel’s Arab community, that number may once again decrease on Election Day this year. Makladeh’s recent polling shows that only 55 percent of Palestinian citizens are planning to vote on Tuesday — down nine percentage points from 2015. Moreover, Makladeh said that while only 18 percent of Arab voters supported Zionist parties in the last election, his polls show that that number has increased to 30 percent.
“There are 940,000 Arabs eligible to vote in Israel,” Makladeh said. “When you look at the incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel, which began with the wildfires in 2016, continued with the killing at Umm al-Hiran, and finally the Jewish Nation-State Law — all of these have pushed Palestinian citizens to stay home and not vote.” They no longer want to try and integrate into Israeli society, he added.
Meanwhile, over 70 percent of Arabs say they want their elected officials to be part of a governing coalition, which Makladeh explained was the result of their disillusionment with the Joint List. “Many Arab voters believe that the Joint List has not succeeded in improving their living conditions, that it has not helped put more food on their table. They have grown tired of them and now want practical politics.”