Israeli Arab voters heading to the polls Tuesday will be the first in Israel to participate in a brand-new experiment aimed at bolstering citizen participation in local government.(For the latest election polls – click here)
Outside polling stations in nine Arab cities and towns around the country, voters will be asked to participate in referendums on a question of vital importance to their particular municipality. The question that will be posed in each locale on Election Day was chosen in coordination with city officials.
The voters will be asked to submit their responses in special ballot boxes that will be set up outside the polling stations.
It is common in democracies around the world to take advantage of Election Day, when citizens are in any event heading to the polls, to hold referendums on issues of local concern. But never before has such an initiative been tried in Israel.
The project is the brainchild of two organizations active in empowering Israel’s Arab citizens and promoting Jewish-Arab coexistence: the Tishreen Association and Givat Haviva – The Center for a Shared Society.
“Election Day is a celebration of democracy, and we thought this would be an ideal opportunity to strengthen citizen involvement in the local government decision-making process,” Maisam Jaljuli, the project coordinator, told Haaretz. A member of the board of the Tishreen NGO, Jaljuli said she expected “thousands” of voters in Arab cities and towns to participate in the initiative.
The responses received in the referendum would not automatically translate into local government action, but rather would be used as “a basis for discussion with municipal leaders about instituting change,” she added.
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Major efforts have been invested in recent weeks by Arab civil society organizations to bring out the vote on Election Day. However, according to Jaljuli, the new referendum project is unrelated and is not meant in any way to lure Arab citizens – who might not otherwise consider voting – to the polling stations.
In the April 9 election, only 49 percent of Israel’s Arab citizens, who account for 21 percent of the population, exercised their right to vote. It was an all-time low.
The nine localities chosen for the project, which is due to be expanded in the future, were: Kafr Qasem, Arabeh, Rahat, Kfar Kara, Jatt, Umm al-Fahm, Tamra, Sakhnin and Arara.
“We were actually surprised by the enthusiastic responses we received from the mayors we approached,” said Jaljuli.
Residents of Kafr Qasem, located in what is known as the “Triangle” of Arab towns and villages near the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized border) will be asked, for example, whether they want surveillance cameras installed around town as a means of reducing crime. Residents of Rahat, the large Bedouin city in the Negev, will be asked whether trucks should be prohibited from entering residential neighborhoods. And Umm al-Fahm residents will be asked whether cellular antennas should be removed from their city. In most of the other locales, the question asked will pertain to ways of reducing crime.
Rising crime rates are a key issue in Israeli Arab cities and towns. In a survey published several months ago by The Abraham Initiatives, an organization dedicated to promoting shared society in Israel, more than one-quarter of Arab citizens reported that they or their relatives had been victims of violent crimes in the past year. More than one-third said they felt unsafe in their communities because of violence.