AG said to oppose Likud plan to again hide cameras in Arab polling stations
Netanyahu's party has doubled budget for surveillance op

AG said to oppose Likud plan to again hide cameras in Arab polling stations

At next week’s election committee hearing, Mandelblit will reportedly present opinion backing filming only during vote counting

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

An Israeli man arrives at a polling station to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 in the northern Arab Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
An Israeli man arrives at a polling station to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 in the northern Arab Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is reportedly slated to oppose the Likud party’s plan to once again arm its polling officials stationed in Arab communities with hidden cameras during the upcoming election.

At a Central Election Committee hearing next Monday, Mandelblit will present his legal opinion on the surveillance operation, which critics have said is being used as a form of voter intimidation to keep Arabs from the polls, Ynet reported Sunday.

While the attorney general is expected to oppose filming during voting hours, the report cited legal sources who speculated that he will not prevent cameras from being used during the counting process after polls have closed.

In the last election in April, Likud equipped some 1,200 of its polling committee representatives with hidden cameras and placed them at voting stations throughout Arab communities across the country. Though the activists were filming from the check-in table and not going behind voting booths, their behavior led to skirmishes at dozens of stations, requiring police interference.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party has doubled its budget for the surveillance operation ahead of the September 17 vote, and will now pump roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000) into the program, a source with knowledge of the operation confirmed to The Times of Israel last week.

An Arab Israeli man prepares to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The stated goal of the project is to prevent voter fraud in Arab communities, which the program’s organizers assert is rampant. But Arab and left-wing parties have slammed the cameras as a means to intimidate Arab citizens and prevent them from voting. After several complaints were filed with the Central Elections Committee on the matter, the body’s chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, agreed to hold a hearing next week on the matter.

The source who spoke to The Times of Israel said the Likud party — led by its representative on the electoral body, MK David Bitan — will ask Melcer during the hearing to detail in writing what their poll watchers can and cannot do with the surveillance cameras. The party will also ask that their polling officials in Arab towns be given extra police protection, the source said.

Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. A fifth individual affiliated with an additional party can also be present as a designated poll watcher.

With the expanded budget, Likud will be able to place additional observers at polling stations where there were none in April, the source with knowledge of the operation said. Likud will seemingly be able to skirt the rule forbidding two workers from the same party being at a poll via deals with other parties, which can essentially “lend out” their poll workers and observers.

A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

While the poll watchers won’t be allowed to sit at the check-in table with the rest of polling committees, they will be allowed to remain in their respective station throughout the entire day. With the police reinforcement that they have requested, the operation’s organizers hope their activists will be able to surveil every polling station without interference or threats from Arab community members, the source said.

Shortly after polls opened on April 9, officials at Arab polling stations began noticing the cameras, and subsequent news stories reporting on the until-then secret operation led to broad uproar from opposition members over the targeting of a minority community.

After a complaint was filed, Melcer ordered that the Likud polling officials be removed from the Arab polling stations.

However, less than an hour later, he handed down a ruling green-lighting the use of the cameras, given that they weren’t being used to film voters themselves behind the voting booths, but rather to surveil other polling committee officials.

Melcer said the the cameras could be used during voting hours “only in cases in which there is a fear of substantial violation of the integrity of the elections.”

(Top R) Sagi Kaizler and Gadi De’ee pose for a photo with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (bottom L) and his wife Sara after election results announced on April 9, 2019. (Kaizler-Inbar)

The use of audio recording was granted during all hours of the day.

Melcer ruled that during the ballot count, cameras would also be allowed, but only after the other members of the polling committee had been notified that they were being filmed.

The operation is set to be run again by the Kaizler-Inbar communications firm, the source said. Kaizler-Inbar organized the April effort by recruiting activists mainly from national religious seminaries across the country and boasted in a Facebook post shortly after the vote  of “success” in bringing turnout among Arabs down to below 50 percent — its lowest level in decades.

Likud polling officials claimed the cameras were intended to catch offenses of voter fraud by the other members of polling committees throughout the day as well as during the ballot counting after polls closed. The program was overseen by Likud minister Yoav Gallant, who regularly updated Netanyahu on it.

Since the April election, police have opened investigations regarding suspicions of voter fraud in two polling stations: one in the city of Afula and another in the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei. Neither polling station was targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.

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