Israel elections 2019

Arab journalist slams Likud poll station cameras; Arab party: ‘Political terror’

Lucy Aharish asks: ‘What would we say if cameras were placed on Jewish voters in US?’; Arab voter turnout fell to 52%, pollster estimates, compared to 63.7% in 2015

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Arab Israeli journalist Lucy Aharish attends the Israeli 67th Independence Day Ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Arab Israeli journalist Lucy Aharish attends the Israeli 67th Independence Day Ceremony at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on April 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

A prominent Arab Israeli media personality slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party on Thursday for arranging for hidden cameras to be deployed at voting stations in Arab communities on election day, asking what the response would be if the ruling party in the US did the same thing to Jews there.

Meanwhile, an Arab lawmaker called the move “political terror.”

Likud admitted on Tuesday that it was behind that day’s scheme to place a reported 1,200 cameras in voting booths in Arab towns, which party officials said were designed to counter what they alleged were areas at high risk of voter fraud.

Kaizler Inbar, an Israeli public relations firm, said on Wednesday that it had worked closely with Likud to equip election observers at polling stations in Arab towns with cameras, and contended with pride that these were responsible for low Arab voter turnout.

In a post on its Facebook page, Kaizler Inbar, the PR agency that said it planted the cameras in Arab towns, said: “After a long preparation period, an amazing logistical arrangement, and deep and close cooperation with the best people in Likud, we launched an operation that decisively contributed to one of the most important achievements in the national [right-wing] camp: ‘Integrity’ in the Arab sector,” the post said.

Kaizler Inbar directly linked the campaign to the low voter turnout this election among Arab Israelis, bragging it was “the lowest that was seen in recent years!”

The firm also thanked the activists it dispatched to polling stations.

“You — who ‘earned’ the most violent threats, near-lynchings and police questioning under caution for a few hours and didn’t for a moment give up the important task assigned to you — you are the true great winners,” it said.

Arab Israeli journalist Lucy Aharish told Army Radio Thursday: “All morning I have been thinking about this. If someone from [the US] came to a voting station in Brooklyn and placed cameras on Jews due to fears of them committing [voter fraud], what would we be saying about that? People are not considering how horrifying it is that the ruling party itself [did this].”

According to Hebrew media reports, some 1,200 concealed cameras were found at polling stations in Nazareth, Rahat, Sakhnin, Majd al-Krum, Taibe, Tamra and other towns with majority Arab populations. The reports said a handful of cameras were also discovered in ultra-Orthodox ballot stations.

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

Following the revelation of the cameras on Tuesday, Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Hanan Melcer said Israeli law only permits filming at polling stations during “extraordinary circumstances,” and ordered Likud to remove the equipment.

Mtanes Shihadeh, a top politician for the Arab Balad party, also lambasted the camera scheme on Thursday, contending that the aim was to frighten Arab voters and dissuade them from participating in the election.

“Someone is treating the Arab population and voters as potential political criminals,” he told Army Radio. “The goal [of the cameras] was intimidation and political terrorism against Arab voters.”

Balad MK Jamal Zahalka made a similar claim on Tuesday in a complaint to the Central Elections Committee, arguing the cameras were intended to “scare” Arab voters.

Mtanes Shihadeh, Ra’am-Balad’s number two candidate. (Courtesy of Balad)

Arab residents of Tamra and Shfaram who spoke to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, including some who said they did not plan to cast a ballot, said the cameras did not intimidate them.

Residents of two towns in the Galilee, however, blasted Likud’s camera scheme, with some calling it “racist.”

“Everyone should be subject to the same procedures and protocols,” 32-year-old Mohammed Yassin, a construction worker, said, standing outside the Ibn Sina School in Tamra. “If they want election observers to wear cameras in Arab villages, they ought to make sure the same is done in Jewish towns.”

Fifty-two percent of eligible Arab Israelis cast ballots in Tuesday’s elections, Yousef Makladeh, an Arab Israeli statistician, estimated.

Tamra on March 3, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

In the elections in 2013 and 2015, some 54% and 63.7%, of Arab Israelis, respectively, voted, according to estimates calculated after those elections.

Turnout was a mere 39.83% in Nazareth, the largest Arab-majority city, on Tuesday. It only reached 49.32% in Rahat, the second most populated Arab-majority town.

Makladeh, who runs Statnet, a research institute based in northern Israel, explained that it is not possible to determine exactly how many Arab Israelis cast ballots because many of them live in mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

“The available data does not indicate the background of the persons voting in the mixed towns,” he told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

There are many mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel including Haifa, Ramle, Lod, Acre and others.

Makladeh said he arrived at the estimated 52% by taking the overall turnout in Arab towns and villages, 50%, and weighing it against that of mixed cities as well as what he expects the number of disqualified Arab votes to be.

Meretz MK Michal Rozin sent a letter on Tuesday to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, requesting he “carry out an urgent examination” into whether Likud violated an Israeli law, which she said prohibits threatening a voter with harm, “if he votes, or refrains from voting, at all, or for a specific list of candidates.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at conference at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan on March 28, 2019. (Flash90)

Outgoing Joint List MK and incoming Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Sliman also sent a letter to Mandelblit, demanding that he open an investigation into “the Likud party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s entanglement in funding the placement of cameras and recording devices in polling centers in Arab towns.”

“This campaign is part and parcel of the incitement Netanyahu is carrying out against the Arab citizens and parties,” she said in her letter to Mandelblit, adding that it was an attempt to undermine “the legitimacy” of the Arab community’s citizenship.

Netanyahu drew condemnation last month from Arab Israelis and their allies for stating that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.” He also courted controversy on election day in 2015 when he published a video urging right-wingers to vote because Arab Israelis were “flocking” to the polls.

Adalah, an Israeli rights group, also sent a letter on Thursday to Mandelblit, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, and Police Northern District Commander Alon Asour, urging them “to open a criminal investigation into the [cameras] affair, due to suspicions of election interference and invasion of voter privacy.”

According to the Kan public broadcaster, police have opened an investigation into the camera activity.

Videos posted online on Tuesday appeared to show Likud activists being confronted by other observers and the police over small cameras concealed on their person. In one of the videos, a young man with a hidden camera confronted at a polling station said he was acting on behalf of “my employers… Likud.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in Israel’s parliamentary elections in Jerusalem, on April 9, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP)

Netanyahu defended the cameras in comments he made to reporters after casting his ballot in Jerusalem. “There should be cameras everywhere, not hidden ones,” he said.

Pressed as to why Likud believed it was necessary to conduct its own surveillance, the prime minister said it was to “ensure a fair vote.”

Likud lawyer Kobi Matza insisted to Kan that the portable cameras were not concealed, and therefore not illegal under Israeli election laws.

“The cameras were not hidden, they were out in the open, and were in places where there is a high suspicion of fraud,” he said in an interview. “I get reports from all over the country that our representatives are being kicked out of polling stations in Arab areas.

“The problem is with those people in the Arab sector,” he added. “The cameras were intended to preserve the integrity of the vote.”

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