Throughout the day on Tuesday, some 50 minibuses plied the roads of southern Israel’s Negev desert — part of an NGO campaign attempting to realize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous 2015 Election Day threat that Israel’s Arabs were voting in droves, bused to the polls by left-wing organizations.
Focusing on Israeli Bedouin and organized by Zazim — a nongovernmental organization that defines itself as a campaigning community for social and political change — the minivans brought voters from remote villages to their assigned polling stations.
More than half of the approximately 160,000 Negev Bedouin reside in so-called unrecognized villages, which the state refuses to provide with a planning structure or place under municipal jurisdiction.
Atiya al-Assam, head of the council of unrecognized villages, says that without the campaign, “most of our people just can’t vote.”
Bedouin are registered to vote according to their tribe, not according to where they live, Assam explains. The entire Al-Assam tribe, numbering some 6,000 people, is registered to vote in Abu Talul. But at least a third of the approximately 2,000 registered voters do not actually live there; the rest live in five villages scattered throughout the Negev.
“For example, several hundred voters live in Bir Amshish, which is 10 kilometers [6 miles] away,” says Assam.
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“Because Bir Amshish is an unrecognized village, there’s no voting place there. And there is no public transportation either. There’s a school there, but the government won’t set up a polling place and it won’t send a mobile voting booth, either.
“So people have to walk 10 kilometers across the fields to come to vote — so they don’t vote. As it is, Bedouin are full of despair and are discouraged,” he says.
Others may have to travel much much further. 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.
“The state oppresses us, won’t let us build homes because they don’t recognize our villages, and then they don’t want us to vote because they know we won’t vote for this government,” Assam says.
A few miles to the west lies Khashem Zana, an unrecognized village with approximately 6,000 residents and some 1,500 registered voters.
Dr. Ka’eed al-Utim, a doctor at Be’er Sheva’s Soroka Hospital and a village resident, also says the campaign enabled dozens, if not hundreds, of residents “to have the right to vote.”
“The people here are dispersed between three different voting places — some as far as 15 kilometers away. No one cares about us. Our situation is terrible, and then we are prevented from trying to improve our situation by voting,” he adds.
Sitting next to him, cabdriver Nawaf al-Utim says that “people here are almost overwhelmed by despair. We can’t even marry because we have nowhere to live and the government won’t allow us to vote. And then we hear that all these people cared enough to contribute money so that we can vote. It gives us hope. We have to have hope.”
The problem with male drivers
Nassar Abu Hadura, a resident of the unrecognized village of Abu Talul, explains that the situation is particularly difficult for women. “They can’t just leave their villages because it is against tradition,” he says. “No man will let his wife walk across the fields to vote.”
Nor, it turns out, will the men allow their wives to travel in a minivan driven by a man they do not know.
Maayan Dak, in charge of the campaign for Zazim, tells Haaretz: “There are so many cultural sensitivities in this community. But if we want people to vote, we have to take their needs into account.”
Throughout the day, Dak scrambled to find women to drive the vans they had assembled. She was able to enlist a few; in other cases, local volunteers were able to convince some men from the village to accompany the women to vote.
Um Mohammed, an elderly woman, is dressed heavily in black and her face is covered, yet she will only agree to be photographed from the back. She motions that she wants to be interviewed. In broken Hebrew she says: “My husband brought me here and told me whom to vote for. But I voted the way I want. At least I have that right.”
A woman who gives her name only as Basma, also from Bir Amshish, tells Haaretz, “Take my picture! I don’t care. I want to vote. We can’t live like this.”
Unaware of the minibus campaign, six women rented a small van of their own, she says, to bring them to vote. She holds up a voting slip for Hadash-Ta’al: “I am voting for an Arab party, because maybe they can help us make things better. And they have women on their list, too,” she adds.
The campaign was organized after the Central Elections Committee rejected a petition brought by Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights to set up 12 voting booths in the unrecognized villages or arrange for public transportation.
In response, Zazim organized a crowdfunding campaign, raising some 75,000 shekels ($21,000) from over 1,500 citizens to cover the transportation costs.
Im Tirtzu, a right-wing NGO, petitioned the Central Elections Committee to stop the Zazim campaign. But the bid was rejected because the group is not a political party, which would have barred it from offering free rides due to fears it would only supply the service based on political affiliation.
Nonetheless, Likud then joined Im Tirtzu’s petition, referring to Zazim as “an extreme left” organization, accusing the group 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.”
On Monday night, Central Elections Committee Chairman Justice Hanan Melcer rejected the petition and ruled in favor of Zazim. However, he cautioned the organization to avoid any form of partisan politics and referred the issue to the state comptroller for further consideration.
Dak concludes, “I am proud that the attempts to frighten and silence citizens who want to vote didn’t work. And I am proud that there are Israeli citizens from all over the country who are willing to contribute to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to vote.”