Israeli NGO Cancels Plan to Transport Bedouin Voters to Polls on Election Day

Central Elections Committee upholds Likud petition claiming 'Zazim' has a political agenda and is not registered as required by law

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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A Bedouin man next to an electoral billboard in the town of Rahat near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, on September 10, 2019.
A Bedouin man next to an electoral billboard in the town of Rahat near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, on September 10, 2019.Credit: AFP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Zazim organization will be unable to carry out its plans to help transport thousands of Bedouin voters who live far away from polling stations to cast their ballots on Election Day (For the latest election polls – click here)

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 40

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Chairman of the Central Elections Committee Justice Hanan Melcer ruled on Sunday that to be allowed to bus voters, the group must register as an “organization active in the election” with the State Comptroller’s Office. The NGO in turn decided to give up on its plans.

Melcer rejected the opinion of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that the amount the NGO would be spending for its operations would be under the legal limit beyond which registration of groups conducting large-scale political campaigning is mandatory – and instead Melcer accepted a petition by Likud to require the registration.

Chairman of the Central Elections Committee Supreme Court justice Hanan Melcer, September 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Zazim said it would not register as a politically active organization but would comply with Melcer’s order, and as a result it would not run the transportation program on Election Day.

Zazim said it had planned to transport the 50,000 Bedouin voters who live in unrecognized villages, which have no public transportation, no paved roads and no polling stations. Unless someone drives them, their only way to reach the polls would be by walking two hours or more in each direction.

Zazim’s director, Raluca Ganea, wrote on Facebook on Monday that registering the organization with the State Comptroller’s Office as an “organization active in the elections” would place strict fundraising restrictions on the group that would make it unable to raise its annual budget.

An electoral billboard in the Bedouin town of Rahat near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, on September 10, 2019.Credit: AFP

The significance of registration for being actively involved in the elections is “closure of the organization, firing the staff and an inability to run campaigns,” said Ganea.  Registration would restrict the total amount the group could raise every year, unrelated to the elections, to “something like 600,000 shekels. Zazim’s annual budget is 2 million shekels,” she added.

In addition, registration would color all the organization’s activities as partisan and political, she said. “It would change the foundation of our legitimacy as a civil society and non-partisan movement. We are really not a group active in the elections, we don’t act on behalf or against any party, only on behalf of values,” said Ganea.  

The Likud petition was based on the News1 website’s report on Zazim's planned action which put the number of voters who would benefit from transportation at 15,000.

Voters cast their ballots in the Bedouin majority town of Rahat, in southern Israel, on April 9, 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Likud claimed that Zazim’s goal was “to topple the Likud party government and its leader and to increase the number of voters for the left-wing bloc.” It also argued that Zazim was operating without transparency and without having registered with the State Comptroller’s Office as an organization active in the election. Registration is required for organizations engaging in large-scale electoral activity.

Mendelblit told the Central Election Committee that Zazim’s planned activity wouldn’t cost more than the limit set by law – 101,700 shekels ($28,730), and therefore it isn’t required to register with the comptroller’s office.

Melcer however said that as opposed to the impression the organization tried to create, that its goal was only to transport voters, the group has “at its foundation, at the very least, another purpose, which derives from a well-founded assumption... concerning the voting intentions of the group of voters it plans to transport, and with the goal of creating a ‘Jewish-Arab bloc’ [to prevent Likud from forming a government] mentioned in a letter sent to its activists.” 

It is also impossible to accept the low budget estimates presented by the group for the transport network, said Melcer. Along with the group’s other election efforts, the amounts will exceed the legal spending threshold. Therefore, they must register with the State Comptroller’s Office, he claimed.

The law imposes limitations of fundraising for groups registered as active in election campaigning. Any individual contributor can donate up to 11,000 shekels during a single election campaign, or up to 22,000 in the period between election campaigns. Registration is also a condition for an organization to be allowed to create a database of voters based on the parties they are expected to vote for.

Melcer informed Zazim that he would allow the organization to register with the State Comptroller’s Office before the election so it could carry out its transportation plans, otherwise he would prevent it. Zazim said the Central Elections Committee is completely ignoring Bedouin citizens, “whose lack of access to polling places prevents them from fulfilling their democratic right to vote.”

Zazim’s director, Raluca Ganea, said the group regrets the committee’s decision, which provides support for the Likud’s efforts to repress Arab citizens' right to vote. "The committee’s decision is full of factual mistakes. The ruling party’s petition against a civil society organization, with limited resources, has proved itself to be a petition to silence [Zazim] in every way,” Ganea said.

The right-wing nonprofit group, Im Tirtzu, which petitioned the Central Elections Committee to stop the Zazim campaign before the last election in April, praised Melcer for his ruling “to ban the illegal activities of Zazim. The Israeli public will not allow the election to be stolen.”