Israel Election 2019: Israeli Arab Voter Turnout Up, Activists Say, Citing ‘Wild Intimidation’ Factor

Israeli Arab organizations optimistic, with Joint List and possibly Kahol Lavan seemingly the main beneficiaries: 'It wasn’t like this during the last election'

Arab citizens in the Bedouin city of Rahat waiting in line to vote in the election, September 17, 2019.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Muhamad Abujafar, a resident of the Bedouin city of Rahat, was feeling upbeat this Election Day. (Click here for live election results and updates)

To explain why, he scrolled through his Facebook feed, which features dozens of photos of friends from Rahat and other Bedouin communities in the Negev casting their ballots on Tuesday.

“It wasn’t like that during the last election,” said 28-year-old Abujafar, who runs an educational nonprofit in the southern Negev city.

The Arab turnout in this do-over election could be a decisive factor in the final outcome: Because Arab citizens overwhelming vote for Arab-led and Jewish left-wing parties, the more Arab citizens come out and vote, the harder it will be for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a ruling coalition.

In the April 9 election, only 49 percent of eligible Arab voters in Israel — an all-time low — exercised their civic right (compared with 68 percent nationally). Among Bedouin Arabs, participation dipped even below that, with barely 37 percent voting.

Based on conversations with friends and neighbors in Rahat, Abujafar predicted that overall participation among Israeli Arabs as a whole could be as high as 65 percent come 10 P.M.

Because Arab turnout was so low in the last election, the only Bedouin representative on the two Arab tickets that ran in April did not get in. (Both slates together won 10 seats, compared with 13 in 2015 election.) The Bedouin representative, Said al-Harumi, is now No. 11 on the recently reunified Joint List of Arab parties, with a good chance of getting in if the higher turnout rate continues through the end of the day.

Arab citizens waiting in line to vote at a polling station in Tel Sheva, September 17, 2019.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

With still several hours to go before the polls close, Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives — a nonprofit that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens — said he was cautiously optimistic, especially after walking around the streets of his hometown of Kalansua (situated in the Triangle of Israel’s Arab towns and cities).

“If we compare the turnout now to what it was at this time in April, then we’re definitely doing better — though it’s still not the droves we would have wanted to see,” he said.

Abu Rass attributed increased turnout to a confluence of factors, chiefly the reunification of the Joint List and recent overtures made by Zionist parties to Arab voters. As an example, he cited Kahol Lavan, the centrist party running neck and neck with Netanyahu’s Likud, and its “strong campaign with very inclusive messaging for Arab voters.”

But no less critical a factor in getting the Arab vote out has have been the “incitement and provocations of Netanyahu against this minority group,” noted Abu Rass.

Meanwhile, Facebook removed dozens of fictitious accounts working to suppress voter turnout among Israel's Arab population. According to an investigation by Democratic Bloc, an organization monitoring anti-democratic trends in Israel, the suspected profiles promoted an election boycott, and more than 82 such accounts have been deleted by Facebook after being found to be fake.

According to a Joint List spokesman, a “slight rise” in Arab voter turnout was evident in the morning hours, “but certainly nothing near the numbers the prime minister has been throwing around.” Netanyahu has warned of high Arab turnout in recent elections, drawing criticism for his fearmongering tactics.

Because Arab Israelis traditionally tend to vote in the evening hours, the spokesman said, it was too early in the day to draw sweeping conclusions. The goal of the Joint List, he added, was to exceed a turnout of 60 percent in the Arab community.

Comprising 11 civil society organizations active in Arab society, Coalition 17/9 was created last month to get out the Arab vote on Election Day. According to founder Samer Swaid, the coalition had nearly 600 volunteers spread out across the country on Tuesday.

“Things are definitely picking up if I compare what we’re seeing today with what we saw at this time in the April election,” he said. “But turnout is still not as high among the Arab population as it is among the Jewish population.”

In April, nearly 30 percent of Arab voters cast their ballots for Jewish parties. Swaid estimated there would be less of an incentive to do so this time around, given the revival of the Joint List.

Abed Abu Shehadeh, an activist in the Joint List and member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, said he was “very optimistic” based on turnout he had witnessed in the morning in polling stations located in Jaffa’s Arab neighborhoods. “You can definitely feel that people have woken up,” he said.

Jamal Majadli, a social activist from Baka al-Garbiyeh in northern Israel, had a similar takeaway. “Here in Baka, voter turnout was barely 40 percent in the last round,” he said. “I’m certain we’ll get as high as 55 to 60 percent this time around, and I can say that after hanging out at three different polling stations this morning.”

A key factor behind the increased turnout, he said, was the fact that several well-known personalities in town — who had refrained from voting in past elections — had urged residents to come out and vote on Tuesday. “It is definitely connected to the wild incitement against us by the radical right in Israel, led by Bibi,” said Majadli, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.

Among the reasons turnout is typically lower among the Bedouin is that many live in unrecognized communities and are often forced to travel tens of miles to the nearest polling station. An organization called Zazim had planned to transport thousands of Bedouin to polling stations on Election Day, but on Sunday the Central Elections Committee ruled this a violation of election regulations.

Following the ruling, a group of concerned citizens mobilized independently to help bus the Bedouin to the polling booths. According to Shuli Dichter, one of the organizers, more than 100 drivers from around the country participated in the effort. Activists from the far-right Im Tirtzu group showed up at their meeting point early in the day and unsuccessfully tried to disrupt the effort.

Zazim, meanwhile, opened a hotline so that Arab voters could report any attempts to intimidate them while voting. At midday, an organization spokeswoman said that about a dozen calls had been received from voters complaining that ballots were not available for them in Arabic, as required in polling stations located in Arab and mixed Jewish-Arab cities and towns.

Police reported one clash involving Arab voters in the morning in the city of Umm al-Fahm. An individual pretending to be an election observer began photographing people entering a polling station in town. He was apprehended by the police and the polling station was shut down briefly after a commotion erupted.