To Boycott or Not to Boycott: Israel's Election as Seen From Ramallah

The debate among Palestinian citizens of Israel between participating in the election or boycotting it is not new, even if this year the participation rate continued a downward trend

Locals vote in the northern city of Taibeh, April 9, 2019.
Rami Chelouche

Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar had a show a week ago on Saturday night, April 6, in Ramallah. His gevalt song – in which he argues with himself about whether or not he should vote and winds up with a call to Palestinian citizens of Israel not to boycott the election and to participate – has been played over and over again across social media. And here, in the middle of his show, a few posters were held up criticizing normalization with the occupation and calls were heard demanding that Nafar get off the stage.

There was no violence. A woman noticed that security personnel at the site removed the protesters or at least their placards. The protesters were identified as students from Bir Zeit University. They rejected Nafar's proposal, uttered somewhat jokingly, to come up on stage and have their photo taken with him. He did say, a young woman who heard him noticed, that they are silly teens who don’t understand politics, and that participating in the vote is important. He also said it’s too bad they didn’t listen to the political song/pamphlet that Haifa singer Maysa Daw had played along with him and Suheil Nafar: about a woman’s rights to her own body and herself.

>> Read more: Local rap star urges Arabs to vote in Israeli election 'or end up outside the homeland' ■ Poor results show it's time for Arab parties to do some soul-searching | Analysis

One of the organizers said the protesters didn’t number more than seven, and the foreigners in the audience didn’t even understand that these people were protesting because their calls were uttered to the rhythm of the music. A woman who spoke to Haaretz said they numbered close to 20. But then the show went on.

It wasn’t any great drama, Haaretz was told. There was no report about it in the official, establishment press. Reports about it appeared mainly on Facebook. Some of the posts said one mustn’t denounce someone as a “traitor” for having an opinion you disagree with, urging others to vote. But Haaretz was told that those who disrupted the show didn’t sound like they were accusing Nafar of treason.

In their decision not to exercise their right, half the Palestinians eligible to vote chose to resemble their brothers and sisters living beyond the Green Line: To be without any representation in the Knesset. Israel, its Knesset, the governments that are established and their bureaucracy determine the lives of Palestinians living in Palestinian Authority enclaves no less than they determine the lives of its citizens, Palestinians and Jews. But the Palestinians living in occupied territory – some five million of them – are deprived of the right to vote and to representation.

The Palestinians in these enclaves showed less interest this year in the Israeli election than in the past. In the past they saw the representatives of Arab lists and the left as their representatives as well: whether with respect to political positions or their objections to one aspect or another of policy, or the members' right to pose queries to ministers, get information or intervene in emergency cases, such as a sick person needing an exit permit. The establishment of the Joint List and its relative success four years ago raised hopes that it could provide a model for an all-Palestinian creative and innovative leadership in the future. These hopes were dashed quickly.

The debate among Palestinian citizens of Israel between participating in the election or boycotting it is not new, even if this year the participation rate continued a downward trend. The debate is no longer among traditional sides: The Abnaa el-Balad (The Sons of the Land) and the Northern Islamic Movement, who don’t recognize the legitimacy of the state, and the others – who for the sake of safeguarding the status of citizenship call to vote, explaining there’s a need to take advantage of every means possible to exert influence, to raise a voice, to try to bring change or prevent a deterioration.

Among those who urged a boycott this year, sociologist Huneida Ghanem told Haaretz, there were former voters and supporters of Balad and Hadash parties. In other words, it was a protest boycott over the inability of Arab parties to continue to work together, to rise above their own disputes over seats and seniority. It was not only a matter of adhering to a traditional political position against voluntary involvement in the institutions of an occupying nation, or an expression of the rising alienation, or a lack of faith in the ability of Jewish citizens to change. What is important is that the debate crossed the Green Line, said Ghanem, director of the Palestinian Center for Israel Studies, based in Ramallah.

Tamer Nafar in Jaffa, Israe, 2018.
Moti Milrod

The debate about the vote is now a general Palestinian issue, as the brief disruption of Nafar’s concert shows. You can credit social media, Ghanem wrote on Facebook, for “the transition from real geography as guns and force have shaped it, to a collective alternative geography based on inspiration and imagination, which binds together that which war has torn apart and overcoming existing power relations.”

At the same time, Ghanem says, about 30 percent of Palestinian voters chose Zionist parties, a statistic that also has to be taken into account.

The show of Nafar's, the rapper from Lyddam wrapped up a three-day musical event that is becoming a tradition: the Palestine Music Expo (PMX). Musicians, some are known and others less so, perform before a local audience in Ramallah and representatives from record companies, music critics, festival producers, etc. from various countries.

Nafar, or the Ramle-born rapper Saz, for example, who also performed for PMX audience, do not need to be presented before the music industry. Their appearances were in support of young musicians at the event, which is in its third year, with plans to continue to promote musicians just launching their careers. Of the 19 bands that appeared last week, five have already signed deals with record companies, whether for more performances, recordings or other forms of advancement.

By saying “local audience,” the reference is to a young audience from East Jerusalem, Nablus, Haifa and Jaffa, Ramallah and Nazareth, while saying Palestine refers to the entire country, as a geographic-historic concept, beyond the present names of states. It was not possible to guess who came from Nablus and who from Haifa except perhaps by their dialect, in conversation. Cultural activity, be it of consumers or performers, takes an important part of the audience's time, much more than any political or social activity, if they’re at all involved in such activity. There are those who see cultural activity as an alternative, or as a form of resistance. “Don’t pretend that it’s resistance,” a photographer and film producer from East Jerusalem said. “Why can’t we say we simply fancy it and that we deserve to have a good time, even under the occupation?”

Palestinian society and geography were even more representative on stage than in the audience, thanks to the members of three bands the organizers succeeded in getting to the show: Typo, Water and Sol from Gaza. Exit permits were obtained by only 12 out of the 25 members in the three bands. As usual the Israeli permits were issued only at the last minute. The musicians who did get out, decided to appear together, after a single one-hour rehearsal. The improvised group of Typo and Sol performed on Friday and had the crowd dancing. "Water," or rather its musicians that were lucky enough to get permits, played on Saturday.  Typo, a relatively older band is one of five bands that signed deals for development and advancement with a record company from abroad.

Also signing an agreement was the Itija band from Dheisheh. The four young energetic teenage girls stood confidently on stage, representing a refugee camp that set up a vibrant cultural center active since the first intifada. They sang about the homeland beyond the borders and their demands as women in a patriarchal society.

For young citizens of Israel hanging out at the Grand Park Hotel, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jenin are places where they can feel free and take a few hours respite from the distress of friction with an arrogant Jewish environment. My guess is that most of those who were there did not vote. The decision against voting is a declaration that the citizen status of Arabs in a Jewish state is not important. But their citizen status, that which voting helps to safeguard against the rising voices of the right wing to diminish it, is what affords them the freedom of movement to enter the Palestinian enclaves. The residents of Palestinian enclaves are not permitted to come out and dance with them on the beaches of Haifa.