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Palestinian citizens of Israel split over election boycott, Joint List

Half of Palestinian citizens of Israel eligible to vote are thought to be boycotting today's Israeli elections
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, carries his son after voting in Haifa on Monday (AFP)

“It’s a theatre and it will end soon.”

So says Fida Shehadeh, a Palestinian citizen of Israel living in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Palestinian town near Tel Aviv, on the Israeli elections.

Shehadeh is one of what is thought to be half of the eligible Palestinian population that is boycotting the Israeli elections today. Unlike some of her peers, she is not enamoured by the Joint List, a collection of Palestinian parties that have been credited with the “political awakening” for Palestinians citizens in Israel to get more involved and gain a representative vote in the Knesset.

With more than 60 laws in the Israeli legal system which human rights organisations say discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in the civil, education, economic, and social sectors, the Joint List has touched a nerve among Palestinians who make up 20 percent of the total Israeli population.

Boycotters, however, firmly believe that their movement is a matter of national Palestinian self-determination, and oppose the citizenship discourse that Palestinian political parties have adopted, including former Balad leader Azmi Bishara.

Bishara, who now lives in Qatar in self-exile, argued that Palestinian citizens of Israel can only be equal to Jewish citizens when they seized their rights, including the right to vote.

Boycotters, however, are perhaps less concerned, in this context, with achieving equality with Israeli citizens, but instead point to the various strands of Zionist philosophy which they believe caused the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian people when the state of Israel was created.

This year’s boycott has been blindsided by the creation of the Joint List, Shehadeh said. The latest polls show it is likely that the Joint List could become the third-largest faction in the Knesset – behind Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and the centre party of Zionist Union, run jointly by head of Labor Isaac Herzog and former minister of justice Tzipi Livni - following the elections. Such an outcome would secure more seats representing Palestinian citizens of Israel than the parties individually ever gained before.

“Some people who used to boycott the elections are now voting,” she said. “They say it’s not because they believe in the Knesset, but that they’re only voting because of the unity, [because] we as a minority should stick together. This is the most influential opinion that is convincing Palestinians to vote.”

Israel’s first Palestinian coalition party

The Joint List was formed in response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passing a law, initiated by Avigdor Lieberman, last year that raised the electoral threshold for the next parliament from 2 percent to 3.25 percent. The premise for the law was based on eliminating small parties to secure a stronger coalition government. But the law also set the threshold so high, that all individual Palestinian parties – Balad, the United Arab List and Ta’al - would have barely crossed the mark, if at all, to win seats in the next election.

The law backfired when the parties, in addition to the Jewish-Arab communist Hadash party, formed a coalition for the first time in history, raising hopes that the Joint List would obtain sizable clout in the Knesset.

In the soon-to-expire Israeli parliament, Palestinian parties currently hold 11 seats and are now tipped to reach 15 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Palestinian parties have always participated in the Israeli elections, but they have been historically characterised by the inner squabbles and competitiveness, as a result of the vast ideological differences between communist, nationalist and Islamist politicians. This has made it easier for the boycott movement to influence Palestinians to sit out the vote.

But even if the Joint List united parties manage to nab 15 seats, it remains to be seen whether the parties will stay united once they enter the Knesset and whether they would be invited – and accept such an invitation – to join the next coalition government. Arab parties have never been invited to be part of an Israeli government before. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, said, “If and when we get to that junction, then we will decide.”

“I don’t expect them to get 15 seats,” Shehadeh said. “Practically speaking, they cannot do anything to influence the Knesset. Not even symbolically. Historically, there has been no achievement from the Arab Palestinian members of Knesset.”

‘New life blown’

Amaney Khalifa, who is from the northern Palestinian town of Umm al-Fahem and plans to boycott the election, says that the poll will witness a high Palestinian vote as a result of a belief that the Zionist right-wing will be squeezed out.

“Once the parties allied together, it was like there was a new life born,” she explained. “The mood is different now. The percentage of Palestinian people voting is going to be very high, the highest in any campaign election.”

Traditionally, the voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel has been low, with just over half of eligible Palestinian voters heading to the polls. This is down to several factors, mainly due to apathy, lack of faith in Palestinian political parties, and the boycott movement.

Many Palestinian citizens of Israel feel the pressing issues of the economic and political hardships that they face on a daily basis are barely addressed by Palestinian members of Knesset. Moreover, the Palestinian parties, they argue, have no influence on the policies of the Israeli government, and their presence is cosmetic and serves to enhance the image of Israel as a democratic nation.

“The Joint List has no effect on the social or economic problems concerning the Palestinian citizens,” Shehadeh said. “There’s a separation between the Knesset and the executive authorities. Even if the MKs wanted to improve our living standards, it’s not in their hands to do so since they are never selected to head ministries.”

Ideological disparity, lacking coordination

Yet there was a time when Palestinian parties, such as Balad, did call for a boycott of the Israeli elections. The 2001 elections only saw 18 percent of Palestinian citizens vote, with the unprecedented drop in voter turnout largely due to the 2000 October uprising, in which 13 Palestinians were killed by Israeli police forces. Odeh met his wife at the funeral of one of the young men killed back then, Aseel Asleh.

Despite the fresh memory of Israel’s onslaught on the Gaza Strip this past summer, in which over 2,200 Palestinians - mostly civilians - were killed and another 11,000 injured, some say the boycott movement has failed to gain traction amongst Palestinians living in Israel, not least because of disorganisation and fragmentation – a fragmentation not so unsimilar to that which has divided the parties in power.

The northern branch of the Islamic movement, led by Sheikh Raed Salah, is the largest boycotting group, has always rejected the elections and enjoys popular support. Yet with the movement guaranteed that its own constituents will not vote, it does not network at all with the other secular elements of the boycott movement, nor does it campaign against participation in the elections.

Fida Shehadeh said secular boycotters are the movement’s “weakest link” citing the lack of support they get from their own society.

“In my opinion, it’s hard to organise during the run-up to the elections. I told the group that we should begin organising on the day after the elections to prepare for the next. But there will still be difficulties within the boycott campaign because of the different ideologies of the north Islamic movement and the secular activists.”

“There’s a lot of criticism that the boycott movement hasn’t managed to achieve anything, but they have absolutely no resources to work with,” Khalifa indicated. “Our numbers are very limited. We used to find common ground with those disillusioned or indifferent Palestinians who don’t see how voting will affect their lives in a positive manner.”

Absent campaigning

Hind Alsana, a field worker for the Adalah rights group who lives in the Laqiya village north of Bir Sabe’ in the Negev desert, decried the non-existent public role that the secular Palestinian parties who boycott the Israeli parliament have played in the elections. Abnaa al-Balad (Sons of the Village), a secular movement among Palestinian citizens of Israel, boycotts the Knesset on principle, since its formation in 1969.

“I’m disappointed in Abnaa al Balad,” Alsana admitted. “Their longstanding view is that the Israeli parliament is not their place . . . so why are they absent from [campaigning for that] in the streets? The movement, or party, has a responsibility to the street. That is where it derives its legitimacy from - the support from the street.”

She also lamented how social media has erased action on the ground with limiting results.

“I haven’t seen a single flier from them stating their views. They publish all their statements on Facebook, but not everyone is on Facebook. Statements don’t mean anything, they should be present in the streets and talk to the people so that the people can feel some sort of connection.”

According to the boycott activists, the Joint List has directed very little canvassing to the Palestinians, and targeted most of its efforts and advertisements to the Jewish Israeli population, calling on them to take a stand against racism. But Alsana said that whatever campaigns the parties run, they only go as far as to Lod, about 20 minutes outside of Tel Aviv.

“The Naqab (Negev) is not counted,” she said. “The Palestinians in the north treat the south with a patronising attitude. Our problem is with this predominant elite political discourse ... it is enveloped within itself.”