Israel’s Young Arabs Are Angry and They Plan to Vote This Election

Arab Israeli youth seem determined to exercise their democratic right on Monday's election, hoping to send a message to both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump

Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
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The group of young Arabs attending the gap-year leadership course in Kafr Kara, northern Israel, February 2020.
The group of young Arabs attending the gap-year leadership course in Kafr Kara, northern Israel, February 2020.Credit: Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft
Dina Kraft

Mohammed Mahmid, 18, wonders out loud why the prime minister of his country treats him like a terrorist, not a citizen.

He knows one thing, though: On Monday, he’ll be voting to oust Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly described Israel’s Arab citizens as a threat to the Jewish majority.

“It’s a shame that a prime minister speaks the way he does. He needs to care for all his people. But we see a prime minister who only puts down Arabs as terrorists, even though Arabs are found everywhere in this country – contributing in high-tech and everywhere,” says Mahmid, from the northern Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm.

“I think we deserve someone better who will support all citizens,” he adds.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has been in power since Mahmid and his friends – fellow Arab teenagers attending a gap-year leadership course before starting college – were in elementary school. They have come of age in a country where its Arab (or Palestinian, as a growing number identify) citizens have become increasingly integrated into the economy and culture. Surveys suggest that the younger generation of Arab Israelis in particular want to participate in the democratic process and be part of the decision-making.

This will be Mahmid’s second trip to a polling place in six months as Israel heads into the unchartered terrain of a third election in less than a year. The previous two ended in deadlock between rival blocs: the right-wing and religious parties that support Netanyahu; and the centrist and more left-wing parties.

In last September’s do-over election, over 80 percent of Arab and Druze citizens who voted cast their ballot for the Joint List (an alliance of three Arab parties and one predominantly Arab one). Mahmid supports them as well. The Joint List won 13 seats in Israel’s parliament, making it the third largest party behind Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (33 seats) and Netanyahu’s Likud (32).

Israel’s Arab minority constitutes about 20 percent of the country’s population, with most communities based in northern Israel, although there are also sizable communities in central cities such as Jaffa and Ramle. Despite Israel annexing East Jerusalem in 1967, the hundreds of thousands of Arabs residing there are not permitted to vote in national elections.

A Joint List poster on the outskirts of Kafr Kara, featuring Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, plus Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump in the red circles, February 2020.
A Joint List poster on the outskirts of Kafr Kara, featuring Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, plus Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump in the red circles, February 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

“We need to bring Arabs into the Knesset so we can be heard,” says Mahmid, who defines himself as a “1948 Arab” – meaning he is descended from a Palestinian family that remained in the country and became citizens following the 1948 war that established the State of Israel.

“I want to see them overturn racist laws made by Netanyahu’s government – although I know that will be hard to do – and to get funding for our towns and cities,” he adds.

The equality Arab citizens were promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence 72 years ago is something the younger generation has been demanding ever more loudly. And ahead of Monday’s vote, the Joint List has been engaged in outreach to disaffected left-wing Jewish Israelis, wooing them with the slogan that a vote for the Arab alliance is a vote against racism.

Amal Mohsen, who is 18 and taking the same course as Mahmid in Kafr Kara, is from the village of Jatt in northern Israel, She says that voting is one way for Israel’s Arabs to express their civic duty and activism. But she also sees a path forward in contributing to the Arab communities where they live, as well as in broader Israeli society. “We young people must become leaders, go to university and study to become a stronger and more vocal presence, and survive here,” she tells Haaretz.

Integration and backlash

Wide gaps remain between Israel’s Arab minority and its Jewish majority in areas of employment, education and health care, after decades of what even government studies have criticized as systemic discrimination. In recent years, though, government funding and investment in Arab communities has increased. And a key factor fueling the socioeconomic change is the surge in young Arabs attending Israeli colleges and universities. In 2019, for example, Arab Israelis made up about 40 percent of students enrolled at the University of Haifa.

Areej Zahalka, 30, is part of that change. She studied at Tel Aviv University and returned to her hometown of Kafr Kara, where she is director of the local council’s center for young adults. With a population of some 18,000, Kafr Kara is one of a cluster of Arab towns and villages in what is known as “the Triangle,” a region south of Haifa and adjacent to the West Bank.

Zahalka says she is voting on Monday with the hope that there will be a major political shift. “I am hungry for change. Having someone sitting in power like a king is not democracy,” Zahalaka says, referring to Netanyahu, who has been Israel’s premier continuously since March 2009.

Areej Zahalka at the Kafr Kara center for young adults. “I am hungry for change. Having someone sitting in power like a king is not democracy.”
Areej Zahalka at the Kafr Kara center for young adults. “I am hungry for change. Having someone sitting in power like a king is not democracy.”Credit: Dina Kraft

“Here in Kafr Kara, we have the highest proportion of college graduates anywhere in Israel, and every fourth adult is a doctor,” says Zahalka, sitting in her airy office in the town’s community center. (The local council confirms her medical claim, and Haaretz previously reported on the phenomenon in 2007.) “And as Arabs become more integrated, there are politicians who fear this.”

She continues: “Once, they felt Arabs were a physical threat to the state. You know, all the stereotypes – ‘They want to kill us, take our land.’ And now you have all these Arabs working in high-tech, as doctors, working on their careers and being modern young people, like anywhere else in the world, and there is fear [from Jewish Israelis] of assimilation. I see a link between this and the incitement,” Zahalka says.

“We want politicians in power who understand the different political currents here, and who can help oversee and encourage the dialogue and connections between us,” she says.

Rawan Odeh, 24, from Kfar Yafia, a village near Nazareth, is also seeking political leadership that will encourage the vision of Israel as a shared society, one in which Jews and Arabs live as equals.

She majored in education and Hebrew literature in college, works as an educator in the Galilee, and is part of the integration story. At the same time, though, she defines herself as a Palestinian citizen of Israel; as someone who sees her citizenship as Israeli, but her cultural and historical identity as Palestinian.

“I love the Hebrew language, I dream in Hebrew, I studied Hebrew literature. But although it’s a culture I love, it doesn’t mean it’s my culture. I’m an Arab Palestinian Israeli,” Odeh relays.

Before voting she considers the merits of each party carefully, reading all of their platforms before making a decision. She voted for the left-wing, Zionist Meretz party last September, but will be voting for the Joint List this time around. Why? “Because I see the power of their being the third-largest party; as one that can have influence,” she says. “Even if their voice is from the outside, they can do things to show that Arabs can also make changes. And I hope change will be good for everyone – not just for one side, but for all sides.”

She also has a message for Netanyahu, who has increasingly used scare tactics about the Arab community to galvanize his right-wing Jewish base, including infamously warning that the Arab community was voting in droves on Election Day in March 2015. “I would tell him to stop using Arabs as a negative word – Arabs are not a threat,” Odeh says. “I would tell him to stop using Arabs as a weapon in his political games.”

Odeh adds: “For people like me who care about coexistence, we ask, ‘What did we do wrong?’”

For some, the constant rejection from Israel’s right-wing governments has been too much, and they are boycotting the upcoming election. It is not a new phenomenon, with Arab turnout in Israeli elections historically lower than among its Jewish equivalent. Last April, for instance, Arab turnout hit a record low of 49.2 percent (when the Joint List ran as two separate factions), although that rebounded in September to 59.1 percent. However, even that was still 10 percentage points lower than the Jewish turnout of 69.4 percent.

At a café in Ara, a village next to Kafr Kara, two young college graduates order food and explain why they will not be voting on Monday.

Roba Wattad at a cafe in Ata, near Kafr Kara.
Roba Wattad at a cafe in Ata, near Kafr Kara. “I don’t want to vote because of the racism against Arabs.” Credit: Dina Kraft

“I don’t want to vote because of the racism against Arabs. I don’t want to be part of that system,” says 24-year-old Roba Wattad, an education student. Her friend Donia Wattad (no relation), a 23-year-old studying graphic design, adds: “I don’t have any faith in the system – not in Jewish parties or Arab parties. We are disappointed in the country.”

Vote of the century

However, speak to other young Arab Israelis and they will tell you how they are extra-motivated to take part on Monday. They want their support of the Joint List to be a “protest vote” against U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” which purportedly looks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but has been widely criticized by the international community for being a one-sided effort.

For Israel’s Arabs, the plan feels deeply personal – in particular the section which suggests that the Triangle area, home to some 300,000 Arab Israelis, could become part of a future Palestinian state.

The very idea that they could be stripped of their Israeli citizenship, in a country that may be complicated but is still very much their home, feels like an affront to their identity as citizens, many say.

A woman holding a placard during a rally to protest the Trump Mideast plan, in front of the the offices of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in Gaza City, February 27, 2020.
A woman holding a placard during a rally to protest the Trump Mideast plan, in front of the the offices of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in Gaza City, February 27, 2020.Credit: Adel Hana,AP

Malak Awisat, 18, from the town of Baka al-Garbiyeh, which abuts the West Bank, explains that Monday will be her first chance to vote. “I think all Arabs should be voting,” she says. “It’s the most important vote we have had – a way to say we reject this ‘deal of the century.’

“How can people who don’t even live here decide something like this?” she asks, referring to the Trump administration. “If this plan happened, it would mean our rights would be taken away. This is our country too, after all.”

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