Netanyahu’s party steps up tactics to suppress Palestinian voters before election

A Palestinian elderly citizen from Taiybe town casts her ballot at a polling station, during April 1919 Knesset elections (EPA)

Likud is doubling its budget for surveillance of polling stations

Miriam Berger

The National  /  August 6, 2019

Israel’s ruling party is ramping up its rhetoric and tactics intended to suppress Palestinian voters before the September election, Israeli civil rights groups have said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is doubling its budget for surveillance operations, like hidden cameras, targeting polling stations and voter in Palestinian communities. Israel’s election committee will consider a petition on Thursday calling for this practice to be banned as discriminatory racial profiling.

Palestinian citizens of Israel make up over 20 per cent of Israel’s nine million citizens but have historically played a marginal role in Israel’s coalition style government.

In this coming election, however, the embattled prime minister is taking no prisoners as he fights for his political life again. Mr Netanyahu won the last election in April but then sent the country back to the voting booths after he failed to form a government in a standoff with former-ally-turned-arch-rival Avigdor Lieberman.

Now Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party and competitors to the rights are in a frenzy to secure as many votes as possible — demonising and discouraging Palestinian voters as a key part of this strategy, said Sawsan Zaher, an attorney with Adalah, a Palestinian legal centre in Israel.

“If they succeed in having fewer Arabs [Palestinians] voting, the representatives of Arabs in the Knesset will be less,” Ms Zaher said. “The same mandates will be given to Jewish Israeli parties at the expense of the Arab ones.”

Mr Lieberman himself first raised the level of hate speech against Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel in the 2009 election. One of his campaign slogans read, “No Loyalty, No Citizenship,” referring to his demand that Arab citizens take a loyalty test.

In the 2015 election, Mr Netanyahu notoriously called on Jewish Israeli voters to head to the voting booths on election day to combat the “droves of Arabs” voting.

Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel are less likely than Jewish Israelis to participate in elections. They did, however, turn out in record numbers (62 per cent) in the 2015 election and the Arab parties became the parliament’s third largest bloc.

Fast forward to April’s election, and only 49 per cent voted amid the racist campaigning, fighting between the Arab parties, and growing calls to boycott out of frustration with the system.

Now, in addition to the rhetoric, civil society groups warn that two voter suppression tactics of the last election could intimidate and lower Arab participation in September.

On the last election day, Likud armed 1,200 polling committee representatives with hidden cameras and stationed them in polling places in predominantly Arab communities in Israel. Likud said it was necessary to prevent voter fraud, which has never been a major issue in Israeli elections. Critics said it was a front for scaring off voters.

There was confusion reigned in some polling stations when news broke of the hidden cameras. The day after the election a public relations firm, headed by a settler leader, boasted on Facebook that it was behind Likud’s initiative.

“Thanks to us placing observers in every polling station, we managed to lower the [Arab] voter turnout to under 50 per cent, the lowest in recent years!” the company Kaizler Inbar wrote.

This year, Likud is budgeting $570,000 (Dh2m) for the operation and is also asking for police reinforcements to protect their poll watchers, Israeli media said.

Adalah is leading the charge for the Election Committee to ban the use of the cameras on the basis that Likud “racially profiled Arab voters in Arab towns, tagging them as those who will be cheating”, said Ms Zaher.

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to express his opposition to Likud’s plan in the coming election committee hearing, Israeli media reported.

Nonetheless, activists worry about the impact if the cameras are given an unprecedented approval.

In another case seen as a possible flashpoint, activists are gearing up to bus Arab Bedouin citizens from unrecognised villages in the south to their voting booths, as the state has repeatedly refused to do so.

Around 30 per cent of Israel’s 260,000 Bedouin citizens live in 35 villages that the government does not recognise. These villages are consequently cut off from roads, electricity, public transportation and other state services, like voting booths. Residents need to travel up to 50 kilometres to vote in other assigned areas.

In April, Zazim, an Israeli NGO organising for social change, raised funds for buses to transport more than 4,000 Bedouin citizens from unrecognised villages to their polling booths. It almost didn’t happen when days before an Israeli ultranationalist group, Im Tirzu, backed by Likud, unsuccessfully appealed to the central elections committee to block the initiative.

This time around, Zazim is working to organise a bus network to transport 15,000 Arab Bedouin voters to the polls, Eli Philip, Zazim campaign manager, said.

“Ideally we don’t want to be doing this,” said Mr Philip. “Israeli citizens shouldn’t be paying for buses for other Israeli citizens to vote. It’s the job of the state. There are all sorts of things the state does to make voting easier,” such as giving people the day off on Election Day.

“When it comes to Bedouin citizens in the Negev, the state isn’t doing this,” he said.

Zazim and Adalah have repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned the government to extend voting booths or specific transportation to these communities.

With the election in just over a month, Ms Zohar said they are bracing for more.

“You never know what will happen this week or next week before the election,” she said. 

Miriam Berger – Middle East editor of The Nation (UAE)