Analysis

Large-scale Intimidation Against Arabs on Election Day Shows Israeli Law Is Flawed

A crime appears to have been committed here, and the motive was racist. The Knesset never imagined such a scenario

An Arab woman voting in Kafr Qasem.
Moti Milrod

The demands that have been made of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to investigate the use of video cameras at polling places in Arab communities are justified. The cameras were brought into the polling places on Election Day last Tuesday by polling place workers representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

In addition to suspected violations of the election law, the investigation should also look into possible violations of the Privacy Protection Law. The privacy law covers invasions of privacy committed while conducting surveillance of someone without the person’s consent and that is liable to constitute harassment. The offense is a felony subject to up to five years in prison.

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On its face, the evidence appears to show that such a crime has been committed here, since this was a clear case of surveillance of Arab voters that was likely to harass them. That’s because, when people come to a polling place to fulfill their civic duty, they don’t expect to be on camera. Nor do they expect to be treated as criminal suspects or to be the target of racist labeling.

>> Read more: PR firm behind Likud's hidden cameras in Arab polling sites boasts of lowering voter turnout ■ Israeli Arab MK calls on attorney general to confiscate Likud cameras placed in Arab polling stations

Justice Hanan Melcer, the chairman of the Central Election Committee.
Olivier Fitoussi

All of this creates a potential not just for harassment, but for humiliation. And because the motive was racist – anti-Arab – the maximum sentence for violations of the law would be doubled to 10 years.

The crime of “threatening a voter with harm” (Section 122 of the Knesset Elections Law) may be too specific and personal to apply to the acts in question. But it requires a hefty feigning of innocence not to view the use of the cameras as disrupting the orderly conduct of the election, as described in Article 119 of that same law.

That’s because bringing in cameras is a provocation designed to provoke an angry response, as indeed occurred, and thereby undermine the orderly conduct of the election. That’s a crime subject to a maximum of two years in jail.

Beyond the Knesset’s imagination

The fact that threatening to harm an individual if he votes or refrains from voting is a crime, but much larger-scale actions meant to intimidate people into not voting are not illegal are an indication that the law has to be amended. Acts meant to deter an entire community from voting or statements denying the legitimacy of the votes cast by members of a specific community are worse than threats directed at an individual. Yet they were apparently beyond the Knesset’s capacity to imagine when the election law was passed.

Cameras confiscated by the Israel Police at Arab polling sites, installed by right-wing activists, April 9, 2019.
Hadash party spokesperson's office

But as we know, reality often dishes up surprises. We have no option other than adapting the law to address these ugly manifestations of political behavior.

The above analysis also shows that Justice Hanan Melcer, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, did not properly deal with the information he received in this case. He did bar the video recordings at the polling stations but permitted the equipment to be used for audio recordings. That should not have been permitted, because it handed an achievement and a certain degree of legitimization to people who view Arabs as enemies.

In so doing, the chairman lent his hand to a smear campaign against an entire community that had no factual basis. It also constituted selective enforcement of the law on the basis of ethnic affiliation, in that it was committed by people motivated by hatred and directed only at Arabs. Instead, Justice Melcer should have unequivocally denounced this anti-democratic Likud party act aimed at reducing the Arab vote in the election.

Unfit to be a precinct worker

Anyone who was a party to this process has made himself unfit to serve as a precinct polling place worker. Who would trust a precinct worker who is seemingly attempting to infringe on voters’ privacy and undermining the orderly conduct of an election to prevent citizens from exercising a fundamental right out of racist motivations?

According to media reports, Likud activists also used cameras in the 2015 election. Why was nothing done then in response and why were no lessons learned?

Unfortunately in this case, the fish smells from the head down. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who once described Arabs flocking to the polls in droves as a national disaster, recently claimed that the Arab parties were seeking to undermine the state. The prime minister also denied that Israel is a country of all of its citizens.

He is responsible for this latest embarrassing undertaking by his party. One of Israel’s great democratic achievements is its high voter turnout and the orderly conduct of its elections. But the right wing in this country is apparently determined to sabotage that achievement too, so long as it reduces Arab turnout in the process. Does Likud also want to have Israel hold elections under the supervision of international observers?