Many Arabs in Israel plan to boycott elections after Jewish state's Gaza offensive
By DIAA HADID
Associated Press Writer
JALJULYEH, Israel (AP) _ There are posters for a local hummus shop and tacked-up reminders for Muslims to pray in this Arab town in Israel. But days before a national election, not a single campaign poster can be found.
Feeling threatened by Israel's recent war in Gaza, the surging popularity of an ultranationalist politician and a failed attempt to ban their political parties, many in Israel's minority Arab community say they won't vote next week. Even ads peddling the specter of a hardline government stripping them of their citizenship are having little effect.
"I don't remember relations of mutual distrust (between Arabs and Jews) like we have now," said Hanna Swaid, an Arab-Israeli lawmaker.
Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel's population of 7 million. Unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they enjoy full citizenship rights, but have long suffered from discrimination under successive Israeli governments. Arab parties hold 10 seats in the 120-member parliament.
Accented by a turbulent few weeks, Israel's Jews and Arabs seem to be gravitating toward extremes. The election is expected to deliver a hawkish governing coalition led by the hardline Likud Party, while Arab voters say they will stay home in large numbers.
Much of the Arab apathy appears to stem from the rising popularity of ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, who wants to strip citizenship from Arabs considered disloyal to the Jewish state. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, or "Israel is Our Home," is polling well and expected to be a key player in the next government.
While it is unlikely Lieberman could implement his agenda, his popularity reflects Jewish Israelis' rising mistrust toward Arab citizens, who are perceived by many as disloyal and potentially hostile.
Instead of rallying behind their leaders, many Arab voters are spurning them, believing their noisy parliamentary opposition will not accomplish anything.
"May God take them all!" said one woman in Jaljulyeh, a town in central Israel where residents have historically voted for a moderate Muslim party. The woman walked away before giving her name. Other stone-faced residents refused to be interviewed, reflective of the tense mood in Arab communities across Israel.
Arab politicians expect turnout to dip below 50 percent in Tuesday's vote, down from 55 percent in 2006. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of Jews voted last time around.
In interviews in alleyways of the Arab working class neighborhood of Jaffa, tacked to prosperous Tel Aviv, most residents said they voted in the past but would sit out the upcoming election.
"If we slapped our own faces, it would be more productive than voting," said Alaa, a 30-year-old shopkeeper in Jaffa, an Arab section of Tel Aviv. Like other residents interviewed, Alaa would not give his family name, fearing he would run into trouble with Israeli security services.
Israel's Arabs are ethnic Palestinians who remained inside Israel's borders after the Jewish state was created in 1948. They tend to pepper their Arabic with Hebrew, but their sympathies mostly lie with the Palestinians, and they remain a largely disadvantaged minority.
The cool relations have occasionally tumbled into outright violence. Some 13 Arab-Israelis were killed in rioting at the start of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
More recently, Arabs and Jews smashed and burned each other's properties in the northern town of Acre last October. The spark: an Arab resident drove into a Jewish neighborhood on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, playing loud music and smoking. His behavior, considered a religious slight, set off days of rioting.
Much of the current polarized mood was set by Israel's war in Gaza.
The operation, meant to halt years of Palestinian rocket fire, was popular with Israeli Jews, while most of Israel's Arab community were angered by images of smashed homes and dead children broadcast on Arabic TV channels. Palestinian officials say more than half of the nearly 1,300 people killed were civilians.
Throughout the war, Israeli police broke up dozens of Arab anti-war demonstrations, arresting more than 800 people, according to Adalah, an Arab legal center in Israel.
At the height of the fighting, most Jewish political parties voted to ban two Arab parties from participating in the election, citing their loyalty to Palestinians rather than to Israel and visits by Arab lawmakers to countries at war with Israel. Although Israel's Supreme Court overturned the decision, many Arabs saw it as an attempt to strip them of their rights.
Resentment underlying the election boycott could lead to more violence.
"The Acre events serve as a lively indicator of the fragility of this situation, and its explosiveness," said Elie Rekhess, a historian at the University of Tel Aviv and Northwestern University in Chicago.
Israeli Arab parties have tried to capitalize on the community's fears in the campaign, urging supporters to vote.
In one ad, an actor resembling Lieberman grills an elderly man wearing a checkered Palestinian scarf. "Were you for the war in Gaza?" he asks, imitating Lieberman's thick Russian accent.
"I'm against wars," the man mumbles.
"No good!" exclaims the actor. The word "Disloyal" flashes across the screen in Hebrew.
He then asks a young, fashionably dressed Arab man: "Will you vote in the upcoming election?"
"I don't vote," the young man shrugs.
"You are good!" the actor says _ and the word "Loyal" flashes on the screen.
"We are trying to explain to people that voting is the best response to Lieberman," said politician Ahmad Tibi, who sponsored the advertisement. "Those who sit at home are following the agenda of the right wing."
Lucy Zakar, 51, a store owner in Jaffa, is one of a few heeding Tibi's advice. She said she would vote to express her opposition to many of the country's policies.
"Maybe it won't change, but we have to raise our voices," she said. "If we don't speak, who will speak for us?"