Israeli Arab Municipal Elections: More Violence, but More Women

The election results signaled the waning influence of clans, national parties and ideology as multiple candidates from the same clan ran against each other

Demonstrations in the Druze town of Majdal Shams, October 30, 2018.

Last week’s local elections were marked in Israeli Arab communities by greater violence, mainly but not entirely on social media.

Turan, Sakhnin, Tuba-Zangaria, Kafr Kana, Lakiya and Hura all experienced violence that included gunfire and property damage.

In Kalansua, the leading mayoral candidate even quit the race due to death threats against himself and his family.

“There’s no doubt that one of the characteristics of the current campaign was serious violence,” said Nohad Ali, a sociologist at Western Galilee College and the Arabs-Jews-State project at the Haifa Technion’s Samuel Neaman Institute. “There was a lot of shooting, a lot of people wounded and verbal violence verging on incitement in social media.”

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For Israeli Arabs, he noted, local elections are the most important, since the local government affects their lives more than the national government does.

Also notable in last week’s elections was the waning influence of clans, national parties and ideology, Ali said. This was reflected in multiple mayoral candidates from the same clan running in the same town, as well as members of the same family voting for different candidates. Most of the tickets were independent rather than affiliated with a national party, though in some cases, they were based on alliances between extended families.

FILE Photo: Sawsan Touma-Shukha
Emil Salman

Also noteworthy was the increased involvement by women. Twenty women won seats on city councils immediately, and another six will be seated later under rotation agreements. Women’s organizations active in the Arab community termed this is a big success.

A coalition of 11 organizations sponsored a campaign called “Your vote is your power” to encourage women to run in the local elections and vote for female candidates. Sawsan Touma-Shukha, who coordinated the campaign, said it was very successful. She noted the increase in city councilwomen compared to 2013, when only 11 were seated immediately, while 11 others were seated later under rotation agreements.

“We worked in a very focused manner and appealed to the general public as well as the female public, stressing that a woman on the city council will always consider the issues and that it’s very important to have more women in the system,” she said.

In Nazareth, Mayor Ali Salem was re-elected with 63 percent of the vote, while his rival, businessman Walid Afifi, garnered 37 percent. This election exemplified the weakening of the national Arab parties.

The Hadash party, which controlled Nazareth for three decades until it lost to Salem, an independent, in 2013, didn’t even run a candidate this time around. Instead, it backed Afifi, as did other formerly powerful players.

The race was therefore expected to be very close, and the campaign was fierce, generating considerable verbal violence on social media. But in the end, Salem won by a margin that stunned his rivals.

FILE Photo: Mayor Ali Salem at in Nazareth, 2017.
Rami Chelouche

Salem is considered close to the establishment, and was embraced by the prime minister and other cabinet members after he publicly assailed Arab Knesset members for their behavior. He has been particularly biting about two senior Hadash members — MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Arab parties’ Joint List, and Mohammed Barakeh, head of the Arab community’s Higher Arab Monitoring Committee.

After the results were announced, some Hadash members called for the party to do a thorough housecleaning. But the national leadership pointed out that despite its searing defeat in Nazareth, the party won in several other towns, most notably Sakhnin.

In Sakhnin, Hadash candidate Dr. Safwat Abu Raya defeated the incumbent, Mazen Ghnaim, who also chairs the council of Arab mayors. Ghnaim was considered a successful mayor, and was part of a group that successfully pushed to get the government to approve Cabinet Resolution 922, which injected hundreds of millions of shekels into Arab towns over the last year. Consequently, he was confident of reelection, but ended up losing by 1,200 votes.

After the results were announced, a few riots broke out and caused some property damage. But after a few hours, the violence died down, aided by Ghnaim’s public visit to his rival’s house to congratulate him.

Other closely watched races were those in Druze communities in the Golan Heights, where local elections were held for the first time since Israel captured the area in the 1967 Six-Day War.

In Masadeh and in Buqata, the elections ultimately never took place, as public pressure — including threats of social and religious ostracism — led all of the candidates to bow out in Masadeh and all but one to withdraw in Buqata. Consequently, Masadeh’s mayor will continue to be an Interior Ministry appointee, while Buqata’s sole candidate became mayor by default.

In Majdal Shams and Ein Kinya, in contrast, the candidates refused to withdraw. The elections therefore took place, but turnout was extremely low. In neither town did it exceed 2 percent of eligible voters, which opponents of the elections saw as a great success.

In Majdal Shams, dozens of people demonstrated outside the school where voting took place, clashing with police. Eventually, police dispersed the demonstration, but even so, fewer than 300 people actually voted. In a town with 8,130 registered voters, the formerly state-appointed incumbent, Mayor Dolan Abu Saleh, won with just 259 votes, while the other three candidates combined received just 12 votes.

In Ein Kinya, which has 1,618 registered voters, turnout was even lower. Wael Dabbous won with just 20 votes, two other candidates received no votes and the fourth received only a single vote.