Toward the end of the day Monday, as I began my drive back to Jerusalem, I stopped for gas and coffee outside the small southern town of Lakiya. Two young Arabs were manning the espresso machine, and I couldn’t resist asking if they had voted. I had, after all, just spent eight hours in Bedouin towns in the northern Negev trying to help get out the vote.
I wasn’t working on behalf of a party. Rather, since the April 2019 election I had been following the struggle to provide the 90,000 or so Bedouin living in unrecognized villages with better access to polling places.
These 35 communities are considered illegal by the state, and consequently lack such essential services as paved roads, water and electricity infrastructure – and registered polling places. Although their residents are Israeli citizens with the right to vote, they often have to travel an hour or more to do so. My polling place is a five-minute walk from home.
In April, the civic action group Zazim had joined local organizations in the Negev to coordinate rides for voters from unrecognized villages to their polling places. In September’s do-over election, after the right-wing group Im Tirtzu and the Likud party successfully petitioned the Central Elections Committee to shut down the project – on the grounds that the nonprofit Zazim was serving a partisan cause – the effort was taken over by private individuals. One of them was Shuli Dichter, a veteran of many different Arab-Jewish joint activities.
It was Shuli who had told me to come to Segev Shalom on Election Day morning. There I found him overseeing an improvised command center of volunteers who were seated before a bank of laptops, matching drivers with voters in the Bedouin “diaspora” who needed rides to the polls.
But there was a catch. Most of those who required transport were women, and in traditional Bedouin society women cannot drive in the same vehicle as a man who is not their husband.
Hanan Elsana, a Bedouin activist and lawyer, says that, historically, “80 percent of the women in the unrecognized villages didn’t vote.” Partly, it was a matter of logistics, since they needed their husbands to drive them and the latter couldn’t afford to take the time off work. (Election Day is officially a vacation in Israel, but according to Elsana, Bedouin laborers know that if they take the day off, they needn’t bother coming to work the next morning.)
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“There’s also a belief that the polling place is a male space,” added Elsana when we spoke the following day. The first time she and a group of other female volunteers began working to get out the vote, in 2013, they had to start by convincing women that it was socially acceptable. “Then we got the tribal leaders to agree to let local women stand at polling places next to election officials, who were generally male.” Women voters were embarrassed to take direction from men, said Elsana.
Since I couldn’t drive female voters myself, Dichter assigned me to work as a chauffeur to Ghadir Hani, a tireless, veteran activist who planned to spend the day traveling around the area encouraging people to vote.
Hani is an Arab woman from Acre who moved to the Negev region two decades ago, and today works at the Project Wadi Attir sustainable farm initiative northeast of Be’er Sheva. In her free time, however, she seems to be involved in just about every effort imaginable to improve life for the Negev Bedouin, and to advance the cause of Arab-Jewish shared living.
To call her gregarious is an understatement, and although she dresses conservatively – her hair is covered in a blue hijab – she has no problem sharing a vehicle with a man. As long as he’s driving, that is, since she doesn’t have a license.
This is how I found myself driving at about 10 kph (6 mph) down a street in Lakiya while a camera crew from the Arabic-language Channel 33 drove beside us. They were filming Hani as she urged her fellow citizens to vote.
Hani held a microphone in one hand and a loudspeaker in the other, balancing it on the open window frame. In front of her – placed between the dashboard and the windshield – her smartphone contained a prepared text.
She was not stumping for a particular party – although we know from the results that most of the Bedouin who voted Monday cast their ballots for the predominantly Arab Joint List. Instead, she simply urged passersby to fulfill their civic duty, “for their future and their children’s future, for the people of the unrecognized village and those of the recognized villages that still lack proper infrastructure.”
It was their duty to vote, she said, in order “to defend our homes and our land, and to cancel the Kaminitz law and the ‘deal of the century,’” referring respectively to the 2017 law that paved the way for stepped-up demolitions of homes built without permits (which is the case with any construction in an unrecognized village) and the Trump peace plan, which proposes the transfer of Arab towns in “The Triangle” region to a future Palestinian state.
Vote, she insisted, and say “no to home demolitions, no to land expropriations, and to defeat the right wing and the racist laws.”
We drove up and down the streets of Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in the Negev, and over and over Hani recited her speech, with force and passion.
Every 10 minutes or so, she would ask me to pull over and stop the car, so she could catch her breath, drink some water and shake out the hand that was balancing the loudspeaker in the car window. (After a while, we were joined by another Jewish volunteer who assumed that duty.)
Everywhere we drove, people looked at us. Some looked curious, some smiled or waved, some fellow drivers honked. No one responded with hostility, even though Hani insisted that I drive painfully slowly on some main thoroughfares.
When I spoke Wednesday with Attia Alasam, chairman of the Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, he told me that Bedouin turnout in the area was the highest it had ever been. “I think that, overall, more than 68,000 people voted” – out of an estimated population of 90,000 in both recognized and unrecognized communities. As the person overseeing the campaign to get out the vote, he still didn’t have specific numbers, but sounded satisfied. “We had more than 200 cars out, working all day,” he said, and believed they had enabled thousands of Bedouin women to vote.
To understand the complexity of the operation, one needs to know a few things: First, voters in unrecognized villages are assigned to polling places according to their Bedouin tribe, not where they live. This means that neighbors are often sent to different locations, and not necessarily nearby. Second, unrecognized villages are often a distance from the local highways – as far as 15 kilometers away, according to Alasam – and access to them is by gravel or dirt road. Cars can reach them with difficulty; public transportation not at all. Hence, just driving one woman to vote, and returning her to her home afterward, can take up to two hours.
Shortly before Election Day, 3,000 citizens signed a petition posted on the Zazim website, asking the Central Elections Committee to set up mobile polling places that could come to voters in the Negev who were hard-pressed to reach their assigned stations.
The petition noted how, within a matter of days, the state had improvised such polls to serve the thousands of people who had been home quarantined after returning from overseas, out of fear they may have contracted the Covid-19 virus. The committee responded that the two cases weren’t comparable, and that special provisions were justified for potential virus carriers because they had been prohibited from coming to their regular polling places, something that didn’t apply to the Bedouin.
‘No other choice’
Near Lakiya, at the end of the day, my barista told me he had indeed voted, even though it was difficult for him to get from his home in the unrecognized village of Awajan to the poll in Lakiya itself. He wanted me to know he had voted for the Joint List – “There is no other choice; we can’t go on this way” – and that he himself had had his house demolished by the authorities a few weeks earlier.
Mahmoud, as I will call him (he wanted to talk to a journalist, but was nervous about being identified by name), told me he was 20 and is supposed to be getting married later this year. The house he had bought was supposed to accommodate him and his fiancée after their marriage.
We carried on our conversation by WhatsApp in the days that followed. Mahmoud seemed less angry than frustrated, as he has everything working against him. He doesn’t want to spend his life working at a gas station: he aspires to drive a truck or a bus, he said.
“Listen,” he wrote me in somewhat broken Hebrew, “most people don’t want anything from the state, just not to have their house destroyed. We want to be in good relations, Arabs with Jews, without racism. No problems. And believe me: If a Bedouin or an Arab comes across a Jew who is stuck … he won’t continue on his way – he will stop and help him wholeheartedly.”