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Home > Israel > Silent Rage

Silent Rage
Israeli Arabs threaten to punish Barak by staying away from the polls.

By Jared Fishman
Jewish Renaissance Media

Taibe, Israel

In the 1999 Israeli elections, 98 percent of the voters of the Arab town of Taibe in the Galilee voted for Ehud Barak for prime minister. But today in Taibe, the only new "pro-Barak" billboard is an anti-Sharon advertisement. In Arab sections of the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, the Barak posters from two years ago are either peeling or have been defaced. And in Tira, the left-leaning Arab village just south of Taibe, the city walls, normally covered with political posters, are bare. It is hard to believe an election for prime minister is only a week away. In local northern cafes, however, the conversation centers on the elections. The central question is how Israeli Arabs will vote on Feb. 6. The answer: They may just elect to stay home. Many Israeli Arabs are thinking of boycotting the elections -- withholding their ballots for Barak. According to observers, this will translate into almost certain victory for Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, already far ahead in national surveys. Barak cannot win, they say, without the critical mass of the Arab voting block, which represents around one million people -- one of every five Israelis -- and was key to his 1999 victory.

Causes for anger

Most Arabs consider Sharon -- the one-time defense minister blamed for allowing the massacres of some 800 Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Lebanon War -- a war criminal and terrorist. So, why would they stay at home on election day and guarantee his victory? Two basic reasons: Anger over what Israeli Arabs feel has been "institutionalized" inequality suffered by the Arab sector within the Israeli political system, and rage over the 13 Arab citizens of Israel who were killed by Israeli police during the "al-Aqsa Intifada" riots in October. "They are both murderers," says Hatem Iraqi, a middle-aged, working-class father of four who has consistently voted with the Labor Party. "Sharon killed Arabs. Barak killed Arabs. At least with Sharon you know what you are going to get. Barak pretends to be your friend, and then he kills you." Things were "really bad" under former Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, adds Nardin Asleh, a medical student from the Israeli Arab village of Arrabe. "But he didn't kill any Arab citizens." She says a Sharon victory would not make matters worse. "I lost my brother," says Nardin, referring to Asel Asleh, who Israeli Arabs charge was killed by the police without cause during the October riots. "It cannot get any worse than that."

Discontent grows

While Jewish Israeli society was taken aback at the eruption of violence in Israeli Arab towns in the first days of the "al-Aqsa Intifada," the Arab community was equally shocked at the forceful reaction of Israeli police. Though some of the protests were indeed very violent -- with rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown and roads blocked by burning tires -- Israeli Arabs were stunned that their protestors were shot at. "When Jews in B'nei B'rak protested with stones, they were arrested," says Abu Mahmoud, an Israeli Arab. "When we protest with stones, the police killed us." Israeli Arab discontent with Israeli governments has grown steadily over the past two decades. Arabs have protested against what they call a system that discriminates against them through disproportionate funding of schools and infrastructure, land expropriation, and exclusion from mainstream political involvement. No government has had an Israeli Arab minister, though they hold 13 total seats in Knesset. Then, the Oslo peace process brought with it an increased identification with Palestinian nationalism, and popular protest has steadily radicalized. Violent demonstrations during the al-Naqba riots in May were an early indicator of more radicalized protest. The protests brought a Barak pledge of an added $250 million a year in services to Arab communities. Over a cup of dark, sweet Arab coffee in a shop in the northern Galilee, Ahab, an Israel Arab teacher and peace activist, explains the violent nature of the October protests. "I'm against the way the Arabs protested," he says, "but we can't find the right way, because no one listens to us." Omar, a shop owner, adds, "Israel is supposed to be democratic, but it acts democratically only for the Jewish citizens."

Arranging to boycott

Now, many Israeli Arabs are vowing to express their discontent within the democratic system by exploiting their power to vote -- or rather, not to vote. The Arab leadership is threatening to use the same approach that cost Shimon Peres the election in 1996: boycott. At that time, Israeli Arabs could not bring themselves to vote for a man who, though considered "pro-peace," gave the orders to bomb their "cousins" in Lebanon for three weeks, in retaliation for repeated Hezbollah attacks on Israeli targets. Leaders behind the boycott initiative have planned meetings, demonstrations and a newspaper publicity campaign to dissuade Arabs from participating in elections. Bumper stickers read: "We will not forget. We will not forgive." Israeli Arab public figures have urged voters to stay at home on election day, proclaiming it as the "rational choice." The Committee to Boycott the Elections, a group of left-wing public figures, and representatives of families who lost children in the October violence, have billed this election as an opportunity for Palestinian citizens of Israel to have their voices heard within the democratic process. "Boycotting the elections... is a national obligation of the utmost importance for the purpose of changing the current political formula, expressed in the view the Labor Party takes of the Arab vote as a predetermined, guaranteed reserve in its contest with the Likud," read the committee's statement. They see the boycott as a crucial strategy in "the laying of a new foundation" with the state. The basis of the new relationship is holding the government accountable for the police reaction in October. "In a real democracy, Barak would have acknowledged wrongdoing, and forced the government to ask questions about what happened," says Nardin Asleh. "Instead, our people were murdered, and we have no voice. In this election, we will not gain anything, but we will hold Barak responsible."

Painful decision

Months ago, in response to Israeli Arab pressure, Barak convened a commission of inquiry to investigate what exactly happened during the October riots in Arab towns. A report has yet to be issued. Some Israeli Arab parties have asked citizens not to call for boycott until Barak has exhausted efforts for a peace accord. And one Islamic leader, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, writing in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, noted: "Take into account that your decision could deepen the chasm between the Arabs of Israel and the sane part of Israeli society. True, the hurt is deep, they killed our citizens and their blood still covers the earth, but your job is to look forward, not backward. Do not get lured into blaming Barak for everything that happened." Still, few Arab leaders have endorsed Barak in the election. Labor has taken the strategy of reminding voters, particularly Arab voters, of the offenses laid to Sharon. Billboards at the entrance to many Arab towns read, "It is forbidden to return to the days of Sharon," and signs declare, "Only Sharon will bring destruction." In a Tira cafe, most of those sitting around say they voted for Barak in 1999. None will do the same this time around, they say. Still, some in the Arab sector are hoping that Barak will make a public apology about the October killings. For Lama Iraqi, a student at the Bar Ilan University, that would be enough to get him to vote for Barak. But his wife and daughter disagree. So does Hatem Iraqi. "No matter what, I will not vote for Barak," says Hatem. "Nothing Barak will do can bring back those who were killed."

Breaker:"They are both murderers: Sharon killed Arabs. Barak killed Arabs. At least with Sharon you know what you are going to get." Breaker Name:-- Hatem Iraqi, an Israeli Arab

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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