‘Lack of hope’: How will Palestinians vote in Israeli elections?


Occupied East Jerusalem – All eyes are on Palestinian voter turnout as people in Israel head to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new parliament for the fifth time in under four years.

The country has faced a protracted political crisis marked by politicians’ inability to form a stable government since April 2019.

Polls in recent weeks indicate that voter turnout among the 1.8 million Palestinians living in Israel is expected to be “historically low” despite Palestinian politicians insisting that a higher vote in the community could stave off former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power.

It is unclear whether any of the Palestinian parties will garner enough votes to pass the 3.25 percent threshold required to enter parliament. That amount of votes is equivalent to four seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.

As campaigning in Palestinian towns inside Israel intensifies, analysts, activists and residents say they sense a general lack of motivation to vote, but some polls indicate voter turnout could increase. Historically, Palestinian turnout has stood at 40 to 50 percent.

Haifa-based political analyst Ameer Makhoul says he believes Palestinians in Israel have a “lack of hope in the political parties and in the Knesset”.

“There is a feeling of frustration and defeat, no interest in the elections,” he told Al Jazeera.

In June last year after two years of political deadlock, right-wing Israeli politician Naftali Bennett became prime minister after striking a coalition deal with centrist Yair Lapid. It ended the record 12-year rule of Likud leader Netanyahu, which was marred towards its end by his corruption trial.

Two and a half weeks later, their fragile coalition broke apart, Lapid took over from Bennett as acting prime minister and Tuesday’s elections were scheduled.

Three Palestinian blocs are running. The Arab Movement for Change, led by Ahmad Tibi, and the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, led by Ayman Odeh, have formed an alliance, known in Hebrew as the Hadash-Ta’al list.

The other two blocs are the Balad or Tajamu party (National Democratic Alliance), led by Sami Abu Shehadeh, and the United Arab List, led by Mansour Abbas. Abbas has been criticised for joining Bennett’s coalition government last year.

The four Palestinian parties successfully ran together under the Joint List alliance in 2015 and 2020, both times becoming the third-largest faction in the Knesset. Despite that showing, Palestinian parties have always been in the opposition and are limited in their ability to bring about change.

As for Israeli parties, the main contenders are the Likud – the largest party in Israel – headed by Netanyahu; Yesh Atid headed by Lapid; and the National Unity Party, an alliance of Benjamin Gantz’s Blue and White and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope parties.

Polls show that Netanyahu, who is running with far-right-wing politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich under the “national camp” bloc, is likely to win a 61-seat majority.

Palestinian political parties in Israel: A breakdown

Democratic Front for Peace and Equality and the Arab Movement for Change:

This bloc of secular, left-to-centre-left Palestinian-majority political parties is led by longtime politicians Odeh and Tibi.
The Democratic Front is a communist party and currently the oldest Palestinian party running for seats in the Knesset with a consistent and sizeable voting base among Palestinians in Israel.
The two parties push for a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. They want Israeli settlements to be dismantled and a Palestinian state to be established in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and in the besieged Gaza Strip.
According to polls, the list is likely to surpass the 3.25 percent threshold to win seats in the Knesset along with the United Arab List.

United Arab List:

The conservative Islamist party led by Abbas has divided Palestinians in Israel.
In June 2021, the list broke political taboos when it became the first Palestinian-majority political party to join a governing coalition since 1948.
It promotes Palestinian assimilation into Israeli society and has been criticised for voting to pass laws that discriminate against Palestinians.
The party is popular among Palestinian Bedouins, particularly in the Naqab (Negev) desert but is less popular among more nationalistic Palestinians who view Abbas as a traitor. In March 2021 in the town of Umm al-Fahm, one of the largest Palestinian cities in Israel, Abbas was attacked by people in the street during protests against crime and told to leave.

National Democratic Alliance:

This left-wing, anti-Zionist party set up in 1995 has pushed for transforming Israel from a Jewish state by law into a “state of all its citizens” while also forming a separate Palestinian state.
Shehadeh is seen by many as being close to the street, particularly in the May 2021 uprising when he would participate in Palestinian protests in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem and visit prisoners and the families of Palestinians killed by Israel. The uprisings were triggered by the forced displacement of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem and the storming of al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces.

What are Palestinians in Israel saying about elections this year?

Palestinians living in Israel form 20 percent of the population and carry Israeli passports. They became an involuntary minority during the violent ethnic cleansing of Palestine from 1947 to 1949 to create a “Jewish state”.

Due to oppressive Israeli policies practiced against them since then, Palestinian areas in Israel suffer from overcrowding, high crime rates, home demolitions as well as violence and heavy surveillance by Israeli authorities.

Residents say these longstanding issues have only become worse despite the participation of Palestinian parties in Israeli politics.

Khalil Gharra, a 30-year-old from the village of Jatt, lives in Haifa. While he used to vote for Tajamu, he said he won’t be voting this year because he believes the political parties “are not able to do anything inside the Knesset” and “trying to make the state more democratic from the inside has brought no results”.

“They try to keep persuading themselves and the people with slogans, but nothing at all has changed for the people – the home demolitions, the violence and crime – and over the past 10 years things are only getting worse,” Gharra told Al Jazeera.

“Struggling within the framework of being citizens does not take you to a place of liberation and dignity,” he said. “None of these parties has tried to get out of the Knesset and really build something.”

Ninty-three percent of all land in Israel is categorised as “state land”. Less than 3 percent falls under the jurisdiction of Palestinian municipalities. The vast majority of land, including land privately owned by Palestinians, was seized by the state in the 1940s.

Since 1948, Israel has built at least 900 new Jewish towns but not a single Palestinian one, according to the Haifa-based Adalah legal rights group. Palestinians in Israel face serious restrictions on urban planning, development and expansion due to Israeli policies.

The vast majority of Palestinians in Israel live in Arab towns and villages while a minority live in so-called “mixed cities” such as Haifa and Jaffa. These cities were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and are now home to an Israeli Jewish majority.

Nijmeh Hijazi, a 32-year old resident of Tamra on the outskirts of Haifa, echoed Gharra’s views.

“Some people are saying: Stop scaring us with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich of the far right,” she told Al Jazeera. “We are more aware than that. Speak to us about something rational, about what you have achieved, what effect you have had.”

“Out of everything that is happening in Palestinian society, you’re afraid of Ben-Gvir, but why aren’t you afraid of crime, of the violence in our communities?” she asked.

During the past decade, crime and homicides have increasingly plagued the Palestinian community inside Israel with more than 100 Palestinians killed in homicides last year.

“They put cameras all over our cities, and they tied them to the police system under the pretext that surveillance would deter and lessen crime,” Gharra said.

“You start to understand that since the cameras were installed, crime has only increased – since they started opening more police stations, the killings have only increased,” he said.

But Fidaa Shehadeh, a 38-year-old resident of al-Lyd and a political activist, says she believes voting is her only outlet to affect change.

“As a society, to build leadership, you have to give legitimacy to the leadership and the elections are the only tool,” she told Al Jazeera. “This tool at the end of the day is tied to the Knesset. This is how I see things.”

However, Shehadeh remains unexcited by her choices at the ballot box.

“I am only going to vote for Tajamu so that they don’t go home, not because I’m convinced that this time I should vote,” she explained.

She might carry an Israeli identity card, but Shehadeh says life is far different for her than other Israeli citizens.

“At the end of the day, I am Palestinian,” she said. “I am a part of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip whether I like it or not. This is how they [Israel] deal with me and how I see myself.”