The Israeli Election – Through the Eyes of Palestinians Who Can't Vote

A visit to the West Bank finds Palestinians fearful that the next Israeli government will be extreme, no matter who wins on September 17

Residents of Khirbet Sussia in the West Bank.
Moti Milrod

His neighbors to the south, in the Jewish settlement of Susya, will be heading to the polls once again on September 17. So will his neighbors to the east, in the illegal outpost of Mitzpeh Yair. If the past is any indication, they will be voting almost exclusively for parties on the Israeli far right and turning out in full force. (For the latest election polls – click here)

But Nasser Nawaja won’t be casting his ballot in Israel’s do-over election. Neither will the 350 or so other residents of Khirbet Sussia, a tiny Palestinian village under constant threat of demolition in recent years.

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Like the 2.7 million other Palestinians living in the West Bank, they do not have the right to vote in the Israeli election. That’s ironic, he notes, considering what’s at stake for them and how they have become pawns in this political contest.

“To appeal to right-wing voters, we see Israeli politicians talking more and more these days about annexation of the West Bank,” says Nawaja, 36, the unofficial spokesman of the village — basically a cluster of tents and shacks situated in the southern Hebron Hills. If these politicians get the opportunity to follow through with their plans, he predicts, it will end any dreams Palestinians might still harbor of their own independent state.

Nasser Nawaja, one of the 350 or so residents of Khirbet Sussia in the West Bank.
Moti Milrod

Indeed, it was no coincidence that with the Israeli election campaign entering its final stretch, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to kick off the school year Sunday at the West Bank settlement of Elkana, where he pledged to “extend Jewish sovereignty” — a code for annexation — to all settlements. It was a clear attempt to win over hard-core settler types to his Likud party.

Making political capital

The southern Hebron Hills are located in a part of the West Bank known as Area C, where some 300,000 Palestinians live and which is under complete Israeli control. Covering about 60 percent of the West Bank, it includes all the Israeli settlements. (In Area A, which includes all the major Palestinians cities, the Palestinian Authority technically has full autonomy, but in reality has much less. In Area B, also comprised of Palestinian towns and villages, the Palestinians maintain control over civilian life but Israel is in charge of security.) When Israeli politicians talk about annexation or applying Jewish sovereignty to the West Bank, it is usually this area, with all the settlements, they have designs on.

Over the weekend, the PA announced that, as far as it is concerned, this division into three separate areas is no longer relevant. It is not clear, though, what this will mean on the ground. Many Palestinians reject this division altogether, seeing it as a by-product of the Oslo Accords, which were meant to be temporary until an independent Palestinian state was established.

Two Palestinian boys riding a donkey in the village of Khirbet Sussia in the West Bank.
\ Moti Milrod

More than 30 years ago, the residents of Khirbet Sussia were evicted from their original location — a few hundred meters to the north of the current site — after Israeli authorities took it over for an archaeological dig. The evicted Palestinian families moved into caves and shacks on agricultural lands they owned nearby. Since then, their homes have been demolished several times and all attempts to obtain permits to build legally on their land have failed.

Khirbet Sussia isn’t the only village in the area under constant threat of demolition. About a dozen other villages in the southern Hebron Hills are located in an area the Israeli army declared a firing zone in the 1970s, with residents living under similarly precarious conditions after their homes were demolished in 1999.

The plight of Khirbet Sussia has drawn widespread international attention in recent years, becoming a symbol of the Palestinian struggle against the occupation. Sipping a strong black coffee, Nawaja lists examples of Israeli politicians who have tried to make political capital on the back of his tiny Palestinian village. That would include Avigdor Lieberman, who, while serving as defense minister two years ago, paid a visit to the nearby Jewish settlement of Susya, where he vowed to enforce demolition orders issued against their Palestinian neighbors. (Yisrael Beiteinu, the party headed by Lieberman, appears poised to double its representation in the next Knesset if recent polls are correct.)

It would also include Bezalel Smotrich, a prominent figure in the far-right Yamina alliance who has personally led the crusade against this Palestinian village.

Before entering politics, Smotrich helped found Regavim, a pro-settlement NGO famous for initiating legal action against the villagers of Khirbet Sussia. Nawaja notes that his is one of two villages targeted by right-wing Israeli politicians to rally their base — the other being Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin community near Jerusalem that Netanyahu has vowed on various occasions to raze to the ground.

While both Lieberman and Smotrich have a good chance of finding themselves in the next Israeli government, Nawaja says he isn’t paying much attention to the election. Asked whether he hopes Netanyahu will be defeated in the upcoming round, he says: “In the end, all the candidates are the same. They’re all on the right. So what does it matter?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Habayit Hayehudi leader Rafi Peretz in an elementary school in the West Bank settlement of Elkarna, September 1, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

His sister, Fatma Nawaja, concurs. “I see no political route to change,” says the 40-year-old director of the Southern Hebron Hills Women’s Association — an organization dedicated to educating and empowering local women — when asked to explain her indifference to the upcoming election.

Just how little she cares is evident in the fact that she does not even recognize the name of Netanyahu’s main election rival: Benny Gantz, the head of Kahol Lavan. Indeed, among Palestinians who agreed to be interviewed about the Israeli election during a recent visit to the southern Hebron Hills, she was not the only one.

After learning that Gantz is a former army chief of staff and that he held this position during the 2014 Gaza War, Fatma Nawaja says this only proves her point. “All of Israel’s leaders have been army generals, and they’ve all taken part in the crimes against the Palestinian people,” she says. (In fact, not all Israeli leaders have been army generals — including the current incumbent, who is the longest serving and has been in power for the past 10 years — although many had a military background.)

Driving down the main road in the southern Hebron Hills, it’s hard to miss the election billboards popping into view every few hundred meters. But out in these parts, there is only a limited selection. The most prominent are those promoting Otzma Yehudit, the party founded by followers of the late Meir Kahane — the racist rabbi banned from the Knesset in the 1980s. This ultra-nationalist party supports the annexation of the entire West Bank and the expulsion of all Arabs “not loyal” to Israel.

There are also a few billboards promoting Noam, a radical religious party that is vehemently anti-gay, anti-secular and anti-feminist. Although neither of these parties is expected to cross the 3.25 percent threshold to get into the Knesset, they clearly have lots of supporters — or at least potential supporters — out in the West Bank settlements.

How does Nasser Nawaja feel when he drives by these billboards? “It’s scary,” he says.

Election ads for the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, near the Palestinian village of Khirbet Sussia in the West Bank.
Moti Milrod

Dwindling interest

Khalil Shikaki, a professor of political science and director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, has been monitoring Palestinian attitudes toward the Israeli elections for the past 20 years. As hope for a two-state solution has dwindled, he says, so has interest in their outcome.

“People have definitely become more pessimistic about the outcome, in terms of whether it will make a difference as far as Israel-Palestine and the occupation are concerned,” he tells Haaretz.

According to a survey published in March, a month before the last Israeli election, 75 percent of Palestinians questioned said they didn’t believe the situation in the region would improve under a center-left government headed by Gantz, and might even get worse. Only 10 percent said a government headed by Gantz would lead to positive change.

“Twenty years ago, when it was Netanyahu running against Ehud Barak, there was still a majority of Palestinians who thought it wouldn’t make a difference whether Barak won, but it was a much smaller majority then — a little more than 50 percent,” says Shikaki.

Those Palestinians watching the election closely tend to be members of the elite with close ties to the leadership, he says. “For these people, there is still a significant difference between the right and center in Israel,” he says. “If the right wing is elected again, this essentially means for them the demise of the two-state solution. But if the center wins the opportunity might still be there, though it’s not guaranteed.”

Nabil Shaath, currently serving as foreign relations adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Moti Milrod

But even Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official currently serving as foreign relations adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, struggles to find anything good to say about those presenting themselves as an alternative to the current Israeli government.

“We’re talking about people who within their basic attitude are not really that far away from Netanyahu when talking about the Palestinian issue,” he tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “Maybe they differ on social issues in Israel, maybe on other issues concerning Israelis. But when it comes to a real solution with the Palestinians, a real humane solution and long-term peace, we don’t see significant differences.”

About a five-minute drive down the road from Khirbet Sussia is the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani — a tiny enclave surrounded by Jewish settlements and outposts. To its north is the Ma’on settlement, to its east the illegal Ma’on outpost and to its southwest the illegal Avigail outpost.

“When I look outside, all I see is more and more houses being built every day in these settlements,” says 20-year-old local resident Sameeha Hureini, “while here in our village we face the constant threat of home demolitions.”

Sameeha Hurin from At-Tuwani. “When I look outside, all I see is more and more houses being built every day in these settlements,” the 20-year-old student says.
Moti Milrod

The English grad student says that for members of her generation, it is not a change of government in Israel that will usher in a new era of hope for the Palestinians (she, too, has never heard of Gantz), but rather, more and more young people like herself taking matters into their own hands and engaging in acts of nonviolent resistance. “Our parents are too tired already,” she says.

As if on cue, her father, Hafez Hureini, enters the salon of their sparsely furnished home, sits down on one of the floor mattresses and joins the conversation. Based on his experience, every Israeli government has been worse that its predecessor — which is why this 48-year-old farmer sees no reason for hope in the upcoming election. “They become more and more extreme each time,” says the father of eight.

Asked about the prospect of a Bibi defeat, Hafez Hureini says that “the problem isn’t Netanyahu. He’s just a person. The problem is the mentality, which won’t change.”

Despite their seeming indifference to the Israeli election, both father and daughter believe it is nonetheless important for Israel’s Arab citizens to vote.

Hafez Hurin from At-Tuwani. Israeli governments become "more and more extreme each time," he says.
Moti Milrod

“Their voice also needs to be heard,” says Sameeha.

Shikaki, the pollster, says this is a commonly held view among West Bank Palestinians. “We don’t ask this question in our surveys, but if we did I think most Palestinians would likely say that Arabs should vote because this is the one way they could get leverage for their own domestic agenda.”

Not everyone agrees, though. Naji Owda, a social activist from the Deheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, feels strongly that Arab citizens of Israel should boycott the election. “I think that their participation helps create the facade of Israel being a democracy,” he says in a telephone interview. “Israel may be a democracy for [Jewish] Israelis, but it’s not a democracy if you’re Palestinian. And if there are Palestinian representatives in the Knesset, it makes it look like it is in fact a democracy.”

Only one game-changer

Despite the constant threats to flatten their homes, the residents of Khirbet Sussia have thus far prevailed — thanks in no small part to massive international pressure on the Israeli government. Until a few years ago, the U.S. administration played a key role in that campaign. But as Nasser Nawaja says, with the election of Donald Trump, he and his fellow villagers no longer feel they have U.S. support.

“America’s silence in the face of what’s happening here has given the Israeli government a green light to do as it wants,” he says, noting that home demolitions in the West Bank have tripled since Trump took office.

Bearing that in mind, he adds, the most any Palestinian can hope for in the upcoming Israeli election is that the Joint List of four Arab-led parties and the Democratic Union (which includes left-wing Meretz) will win enough seats to become an effective opposition.

“For us, real hope for change will come not when a new government is elected in Israel,” Nasser Nawaja says, “but when a new government is elected in the United States.”

Palestinians walking along a street in the West Bank village of At-Tuwani.
\ Moti Milrod