Backers of Failed Secular Challenger to Beit Shemesh's Haredi Mayor Cry Fraud

Demonstrators cite arrests of Haredi activists, discovery of suspicious ballots, ID cards.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Beit Shemesh on Thursday, claiming Tuesday’s mayoral election - won by the ultra-Orthodox-backed incumbent by 900 votes over a secular challenger supported by most non-Haredi factions - was rigged.

Protesters supporting Eli Cohen, who lost to Mayor Moshe Abutbul, said the election was fraught with forgery cases and violence. Cohen is considering appealing against the results.

“The difference is only 900 votes,” Cohen said at the demonstration. “Eight hundred and fifty ballots were disqualified and 200 forged IDs were found. … This must be investigated thoroughly.”

Cohen was referring to a police raid on an apartment in town on Tuesday, in which 200 ID cards were seized. The police are investigating a suspicion that the cards were intended for the purpose of voter fraud. Apparently the cards - which must be presented at the ballot box before voting - belong to people who are out of the country, or to ultra-Orthodox members from radical factions that boycott the elections.

“We don’t know if it’s 250 or 1,500 [fake IDs],” Cohen said. He said most of the 850 ballot tickets that were disqualified had been found in secular polling booths and were deliberately torn or scribbled on.

The secular, observant and religious residents fear that Abutbul’s reelection will turn Beit Shemesh into an ultra-Orthodox town, and that even the older neighborhoods will now become Haredi. Thursday night they intend to protest outside city hall.

“They rigged the elections, there’s no way Abutbul won more votes,” said Sari, 26, one of the demonstration’s organizers. “If Abutbul remains mayor, I’m leaving this place. How can we live with people who spit on us, throw stones?”

Speakers at the demonstration demanded to divide Beit Shemesh into two towns – a veteran, secular one and an ultra-Orthodox one.

“This is the beginning of a struggle that will continue until we get what we want,” one demonstrator said.