Election Committee Rejects Likud Petition Against Transport for Bedouin to Polling Station

The petition targeted an NGO that launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance transportation for Bedouin who live in unrecognized villages in southern Israel

An unrecognized Bedouin village, in 2016.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Central Election Committee denied a petition by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud against a left-wing group that’s trying to help Bedouins get out to vote in Tuesday's election.

According to a post by Netanyahu on his Facebook page Sunday, Likud submitted a request to the committee to join the petition of the right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu against what the latter claims is an illegal request by the Zazim grassroots organization to transport Bedouin citizens to polling stations on Election Day.

Justice Hanan Melcer, who chairs the committee, ruled there wasn't substantial evidence to file an injunction against Zazim. The documents have been transferred for review by the state comptroller.

Likud became involved after it transpired that Im Tirtzu was not legally permitted to submit such a petition because it is not a political party.

The elections committee approved the new petition and asked Zazim to respond to it on Monday evening.

Last week Zazim launched a crowdfunding campaign designed to finance transportation to the polls for Bedouin residents of the Negev who live in unrecognized villages and other locales. The campaign met the target: The group raised about 75,000 ($21,000) shekels from the public.

Zazim’s initiative was launched after the Central Elections Committee rejected a request from Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel to erect 12 polling booths in the unrecognized villages, and after the regional elections committee rejected the idea of the government underwriting the transportation costs – an option whose feasibility Melcer wanted to examine.

In his post, Netanyahu called Zazim an “extreme left” organization and accused it of illegal interference in the election “for the benefit of the left-wing party of [Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz” – co-leaders of the Kahol Lavan party.

The petition originally submitted by Im Tirtzu claimed, in contrast, that Zazim operates on behalf of the Israeli Arab parties, and even cited its director general, Raluca Ganea, who has criticized Kahol Lavan for its attitude toward those parties.

There are tens of thousands of people in unrecognized, far-flung villages who are eligible to vote, but for a substantial proportion of them the polling places are virtually inaccessible. Moreover, because they live in such locales, most have no address on their ID cards. Since the government is not interested in opening voting stations nearby – most of the voters stay home.

As an alternative, the government assigns members of each Bedouin tribe to a station in one specific location, which may be as much as an hour’s drive away from their homes; there is no public transportation from the unrecognized locales.

The turnout at the so-called tribal polling stations is far lower than the national average: In the 2015 election, the voting rate among a number of tribes ranged from 19 to 31 percent; only in the case of two tribes, which had conveniently located stations, was the turnout over 70 percent.

Im Tirtzu complained to the elections committee about the Zazim plan to help transport the Bedouin because the latter NGO receives an annual contribution from the New Israel Fund.

“It’s unacceptable,” Im Tirtzu wrote in its petition, “for an NGO financed by a foreign entity to work to bring voters from a very specific sector – who tend to vote for parties on only one side of the political map – by transporting them to the polling stations. This is in total contradiction to the goals of the NGO as reported on the website of the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations, in addition to its failure to register and report to the state comptroller as required by law.”

Im Tirtzu also noted that, based on declarations and activities by members of Zazim, the goal of helping the Bedouin on Election Day is actually to strengthen Israeli Arab parties in general. The petition mentioned a member of the NGO who had been on the slate of one of those parties for 17th Knesset.

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In response to the moves by Likud and Im Tirtzu, Raluca Ganea, executive director of Zazim, said: “This is a silencing effort by the ruling party against a civil initiative that is financed 100 percent by small donations from 1,500 Israeli citizens, and in particular against Bedouin citizens and all Arab citizens.”

The Zazim initiative, she added, “meets all the requirements of the law. Transportation will be available to residents of the unrecognized villages regardless of their voting preferences. The petitioners ignored the most important thing: These are residents of unrecognized villages, without polling stations nearby, who lack public transportation and must sometimes walk great distances to exercise their democratic right. Not only is the initiative legal, it is also the correct and moral thing to do.”

Ganea noted that the goal of her NGO’s campaign was to raise 60,000 shekels to pay for about 40 vehicles to transport groups of 15 voters back and forth, with the aim of bringing some 6,000 to 10,000 voters to the polling stations.

The annual budget of Zazim in 2018 was 1.7 million shekels. About 60 percent (1 million shekels) was raised through small donations from Israeli citizens, and the rest came from grants from the New Israel Fund, the Moriah Fund and other private donors.

On Friday, in response to Im Tirtzu, Justice Melcer demanded why he shouldn’t reject its petition in light of the fact that political-financing laws state that injunctions can be granted only at the request of a party that is already represented in the Knesset or has formally submitted a slate for a future election. After Melcer’s response was sent to Im Tirtzu, the NGO turned to other political parties, asking them to help in dealing with the issue.