Ofer Engel was among the millions of Israeli voters casting their ballots in the national elections on Tuesday. But unlike most of them, he was not expressing his own political opinion, but that of a Palestinian woman living in Nablus.
Engel, who studies the impact of Internet technology on social movements at the London School of Economics, decided to join an online campaign called Real Democracy, through which Israeli citizens voluntarily grant their vote to Palestinians living in the West Bank. The Palestinians meet their Israeli counterparts on a designated Facebook page, tell them which party to vote for, and the Israelis then go and cast their vote for that party.
“Millions of Palestinians are living under the control of Israeli soldiers with no option to impact the Israeli decision-makers on issues that affect their lives,” Engel told The Times of Israel, explaining the rationale.
“Our goal is not to change the election results, but to engender a debate about how we can call ourselves a democracy while millions are living under occupation.”
That goal has already been achieved, surpassing all expectations, Engel said. The Israeli campaign attracted vast media attention from publications including the BBC, Reuters, Sky News and the Guardian. One of the activists even gave an interview to a settler radio station.
Although it is impossible to monitor how many Israelis and Palestinians joined the initiative, since the process can take place independently via Facebook, Engel estimated that at least a few thousand participants from both sides have joined. In some cases, he noted, three Israelis will “amplify” the vote of a single Palestinian.
But it wasn’t Israelis who invented the idea. This model of voter redistribution first took place in the British elections of 2010, when a group of activists approached citizens of Ghana, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and offered them their ballots. A similar protest will take place in the German elections later this year.
Engel said that a few of the original activists in Britain were Israeli, advising him and his fellow activists about the process and even allowing the Israelis to use the original British Twitter account.
“This is an act of refusal, a democratic rebellion,” explains the initiative’s Facebook page. “We are inspired by our sisters and brothers in squares in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Mexico, Spain, the US and Britain, inspired by the movements for women’s suffrage, the Indian resistance to the British occupation, the struggle for democracy in South Africa and the American civil rights movement. Their victories give us hope. We too shall overcome.”
Alma Irshaid, a 22-year-old resident of Nablus and recent nutrition studies graduate, was approached by Engel two months ago, and decided to participate in Real Democracy as his voting partner.
Irshaid told The Times of Israel that many Palestinians she knows refused to take part in the initiative, considering it a form of normalization with Israel. But she said the project was important because it showed Palestinians a gentler side of Israeli society.
“This initiative is a bridge between Palestinians and anti-Zionist Israelis,” she said. “It will help Palestinians view Israelis not only as soldiers, causing some change.”
Although Irshaid never met Engel in person, the two held numerous Skype conversations to discuss the platforms of the various parties running for the Knesset, both Arab and Jewish. They finally decided to vote for the Arab nationalist party Balad. Many Palestinians, she said, asked their Israeli counterparts to drop a blank ballot in the ballot box as a sign of protest.
“Some Palestinians only told their Israeli partner which party to vote for, but I didn’t want him to vote for a party he wasn’t convinced by,” Irshaid said.
A strong believer in a one-state solution “where Jews and Arabs will live side by side with equal rights,” Irshaid said she makes a clear distinction between Jews and Zionists. This distinction, she said, was first articulated to her by her father, who spent a year in an Israeli prison before emigrating to the Gulf.
“Once, during a trip to Germany, my father forced me to go to the Holocaust museum. He told me that we shouldn’t hate the Jews, but we do hate the Zionists who took our land,” she said.