The State of Israel knows very well how to enable access to ballot boxes so that all its citizens can participate in the democratic process. This includes the absentee ballots allocated to sailors at sea, soldiers on their bases and patients in hospitals. Also included are people incarcerated in the country’s prisons. Not one of them votes in the location officially defined as their domicile, and people in this category cast their votes by placing them in double envelopes. But when it comes to Bedouin in the Negev – all of a sudden an excuse relating to their place of residence crops up, with no ballot boxes placed in the places they live. Thus, the residents of unrecognized villages are compelled to travel great distances, mostly on dirt roads, in order to exercise their democratic right to vote.
According to figures released by the Interior Ministry, 260,000 Bedouin live in the Negev and some 82,000 of them not are registered in any of the nine Arab local authorities in that region. The unregistered residents can vote in seven towns or in villages situated within the Al-Kasum or Neve Midbar regional councils, by means of casting votes at separate polls, referred to as “tribal polling stations.”
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As an illustration of this, the residents of the village of Abda, located near Sde Boker, must travel 55 kilometers (34 miles) each way in order to vote at the polling station they’re registered at, in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom, near Be’er Sheva. The absence of regular public transportation and the scarcity of private vehicles obviously aggravate the situation. The result is unacceptable in a democracy: Tens of thousands of Bedouin who have voting rights simply cannot exercise their democratic right/obligation due to distance and problems of accessibility.
It wasn’t always like this. In the past, the state allowed Bedouin to vote where they lived, regardless of the legal status of their locale. A current and painful case in point is the village of Al-Araqib, north of Be’er Sheva. Residents of this village, which is not recognized by the state and has been repeatedly razed to the ground in recent years, voted for the first Knesset in October 1949 right there. That situation continued until the mid-1980s, with residents of this and other unrecognized villages voting where they lived.
However, there was subsequently a change in policy – a result of the desire to pressure the villagers to move to larger Bedouin municipalities. The most salient example of this concerns Wadi al-Na’am, south of Be’er Sheva. Its residents voted in elections ever since the state was established, but when the town of Segev Shalom was built, in 1985, they were asked to move there. When they refused, the government informed them that they would henceforth be allowed to vote only in Segev Shalom. There are today 7,000 eligible voters in Wadi al-Na’am, but the state persists in that demand. In fact, most of the people who belong to the Al-Azazme tribe, who live along Highway 40, between Be’er Sheva and Sde Boker, are required to vote in Segev Shalom.
If the state deems it to be so important to vote in recognized villages, why doesn’t it, for example, permit the thousands of eligible voters who are registered as belonging to the “diaspora of Bir Hadaj” to vote in Bir Hadaj, a Bedouin town that has already been recognized, instead of making them travel 40 kilometers to Segev Shalom? Alternatively, why can’t they vote in nearby Kibbutz Revivim?
In light of this situation, the segment of Israel’s population with the lowest voter turnout is residents of unrecognized Bedouin villages. In the 2015 election, when 63.5 percent of the Israeli Arab community as a whole went to cast their ballots, only 34.2 percent of this population voted. In April 2019, when the general Arab voter turnout was 49 percent, only 25.8 percent of residents in unrecognized villages voted. In that election, turnout at the so-called tribal polling stations serving the Abu-Rabia, Al-Tarabin and other Bedouin tribes stood at 20 percent.
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The mobilization of citizens who helped Bedouin get to their polling stations on Election Day – as well as the inclusion of Said al-Harumi from the Al-Azazme tribe in the Arab Joint List – helped raise voter turnout among residents of unrecognized villages in the September election to 42 percent, which is still 18 percent lower than the general turnout of the Israeli Arab community.
In response to queries regarding this issues, the Central Elections Committee has argued that the Basic Law regulating elections requires that ballot boxes be located only in public institutions. But if a ship, a military base or a hospital meet that requirement – it’s time to inform the committee that these unrecognized villages have schools and public clinics.
This absurd situation must be ended immediately. There is no connection between the status of a community and the basic right of its citizens to cast a vote. The state cannot dig in, in its refusal in this matter, which is motivated by a desire to make life miserable for residents of villages it doesn’t want to recognize. Ahead of the March election, it must place ballot boxes in every Bedouin locale, regardless of its legal status, allowing everyone to vote, thus making citizenship meaningful to them while allowing them to exercise their basic right to participate in Israel’s democracy.
Dr. Thabet Abu Rass and Amnon Be’eri-Sulitzeanu are co-directors of the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit organization, which fosters integration and equality between Jews and Arabs living in Israel.