Euphoria. Jubilation. Exhilaration.
It is tempting to resort to hyperbole when describing the mood in Umm al-Fahm these days. After all, the Arab-led Joint List, which won the support of almost every single voter in this large Arab city, scored a major victory last Monday, winning an all-time record number of Knesset seats.
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But it wouldn’t be totally accurate. Indeed, very little has changed on the ground here since March 2. The roads are just as bumpy and potholed as ever, traffic is still a mess, and residents continue to live in fear of widespread violence and crime. In other words, there is no guarantee that the situation will change just because of the Joint List’s recent electoral gains.
At a popular local café, three building contractors are putting the final touches on a new contract, completely oblivious to the big news of the morning: Prime ministerial hopeful Benny Gantz had just put in a call to several of the Joint List leaders and invited them to meet. From the looks they’re exchanging across the table, a young man and woman having breakfast on the outdoor veranda also seem to have other things on their minds than politics.
Waseem Hosary, a local political activist, therefore, prefers a subtler description of what has transpired here over the past week. “People are standing taller,” he says.
And it's not only because the party they were rooting for won 15 out of 120 Knesset seats. “It goes beyond the actual electoral achievement,” says Hosary, 37, who is employed by Sikkuy, an organization dedicated to promoting civic equality among Arabs and Jews in Israel.
“What we proved is that we can mobilize when we have to, and for the first time in a long time, people here have a real sense of community.”
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The Joint List – an alliance of four parties representing an eclectic mix of communists, secularists, religious Islamists and Palestinian nationalists – won two more seats in this election than in the previous round on September 17. Kahol Lavan – the second largest party in the Knesset after Likud – now has no chance of ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without its support. And what might have been unthinkable little more than a week ago – a government headed by Kahol Lavan leader Gantz and supported from outside by the Joint List – is suddenly looking like a real possibility.
The Joint List owes its big gains in last week’s election to a combination of higher turnout among Arab voters and a higher percentage of Arab voters supporting the party. (Many more Jews also voted for the Joint List this time, but still not enough to account for even one extra seat.)
Umm al-Fahm, a city of 55,000 located in the primarily Arab region of Wadi Ara near the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized eastern border), was no exception. Voter turnout in the city rose from 45 percent on April 9 to 51 percent on September 17 to 63 percent on March 2. The percentage of voters in the city who cast their ballots for the Joint List rose from 92 percent in round one to 96 percent in round two to 98.5 percent in the latest round.
But while almost every single voter in this city opted for the Joint List, that seems to be as far as the consensus here goes. Based on casual conversations in the street this week, hardly anyone agrees on what the Joint List should do with its new electoral power and on what will happen in the end.
Take Hosary, for example. A former activist in the alliance's communist party, he strongly believes that the Joint List needs to support Gantz in exchange for concessions. “The end goal has to be overthrowing the right-wing regime in this country,” he says. “If Gantz and his people reach out to the Joint List members, speak to them like equals, declare that they are a legitimate political force and show willingness to consider their demands, then what reason do they have to stand in his way?”
If, alternatively, the Joint List decides, as it has in the past, not to take any stand on who forms the next government, then all its hard work in getting out the vote will have been in vain, warns Hosary. “If there is a fourth election as a result, I am pretty sure the Joint List won’t get 15 seats again,” he says. “People voted for them because they wanted to influence things and be part of the political game in this country. If that’s not to going to happen, they’re not going to want to bother voting again.”
Ali Mahamid, a local contractor, agrees that the Joint List needs to take a stand and throw its weight behind a big party. “Sometimes, when you want your demands to be met, you need to make deals with the devil,” he says, taking a momentary break from studying his new business contract.
But he doesn’t necessarily believe it has to be Kahol Lavan. “Gantz and Bibi are one and the same,” he says. “It’s all a big act with them.”
His partner Issa Zakhalka, 47, nods in agreement. “Bibi has lots of support in this country, so what do I care if he’s the prime minister or someone else?” he asks. “The Joint List just has to know how to get things out of them.”
Their biggest fear, these contractors say, is a fourth round of elections. “I can’t afford to buy a house today,” says Mahamid, 37. “If there’s another election, the economy will suffer badly, and we’ll all feel it.”
“Mark my word,” he adds, “if there’s another election, far fewer people here will go out to vote.
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Said Abu Shakra, founder and director of the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery dedicated to Arab and Palestinian art, is more upbeat: “People here are starting to understand that we have the power to determine how the next government will look because right now neither Likud nor Kahol Lavan can form one without us. So if you ask me, in the event of a fourth election, we’ll get 18 seats – not 15, and I say that because I know people who didn’t vote this time around who are sorry they didn’t. I also think that there will be more Jews voting for the Joint List because that taboo has now been broken.”
It is a busy morning at the gallery, with preparations in high gear for seven new exhibitions featuring both Jewish and Arab artists that will open this weekend at private homes in the city. Despite the public's concerns over the novel coronavirus, Abu Shakra is expecting big crowds. “I thought nobody would come to the gallery this past Saturday because of all the panic, but we had hundreds of visitors,” he says. “Many of them were Jewish, and I can’t tell you how many of them came up to me to say how excited they were about how well the Joint List did.”
For Abu Shakra, a prominent resident of this city, the significance of last Monday’s election cannot be overstated. “It has ushered in a golden age for Israel’s Arab citizens. They called us a fifth column. They called us ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water,’” he says, citing a biblical verse. “Now all that has changed. We are educated people. We are cultured people, and they can’t ignore us any longer.”
Like the contractors at the café, he doesn’t care whether the Joint List hooks up with Kahol Lavan or with Likud – just as long as Netanyahu is out of the picture. “He’s finished,” says Abu Shakra, referring to the prime minister.
In fact, he says, a political collaboration between Likud and the Arab list might even be preferable. “If Likud promises to stop calling us terrorists, starts treating us like equal citizens and does not follow through with Trump’s ‘deal of the century,’ then why not? Likud was the party responsible for the big rift between Jews and Arabs in this country, so it would actually be nice if they were the ones to start the process of healing that rift.”
If it were up to him, says Abu Shakra, the Joint List would be a full-fledged member of the next Israeli government – not just an outside supporter. “I’m realistic, and I know that any ministerial posts related to security, they couldn’t fill,” says Abu Shakra. “We should leave that to the Jews, but any other positions that involve social change, I don’t see any problem.”
Nonetheless, and despite talk in recent days, Abu Shakra does not believe a minority government supported by the Joint List will ultimately come into being. “I think the Jews will find a way to form a national unity government that avoids any Arab influence,” he says. But even in this less-than-ideal scenario, he is confident that the Arab contingency in the upcoming Knesset will hold sway. “Whether they are with the government or not, they have 15 seats, and that is not something that can be ignored.”
Adham Jabarin, who owns and runs a local advertising firm, is a longtime supporter of Balad, the most hardline faction in the Joint List. It was the only faction in the last election round, for example, that did not recommend Gantz as prime minister. If it were up to him, says Jabarin, the Joint List would not support any Israeli government, whether from the inside or the outside. “It’s inevitable that there will be another flare-up in Gaza or the West Bank,” he explains. “So how can we back a government that will be attacking our own brothers? It doesn’t matter what government is eventually formed, I know that it won’t be on our side.”
But even from the opposition benches, he believes, the Joint List can affect change if it uses its electoral power wisely. “They have one job, and that is to fight for all of us who voted for them,” he says.
Among the local artists whose works will be on display this weekend in Umm al-Fahm is Salwa Alnwer, a 49-year-old grandmother who wears her copper-colored hair long and loose. The art installation she’s created is a giant, colorful fabric draped over a large house perched atop the highest hill in the city. Made out of 567 hijabs, hand-sewn together, it represents her own liberation story: A year-and-a-half ago, Alnwer pulled off the hijab she had worn on her head for most of her life.
“I was brought up in a very religious Muslim family,” she relays, “the youngest of 11 children, and my whole life I was pressured by my family to cover my head. What I’m trying to say through this piece of art is that it’s not what covers your head that matters but what’s inside your heart.”
She felt a similar sense of liberation when last week’s election results were announced. “My gut tells me that things are going to be better, that maybe we can finally have a normal life here, a good life,” she says.
And does she prefer that Gantz or Netanyahu head the next government? “Whichever one of them will support Arab society,” she responds diplomatically.