Arab residents of Tamra and Shfaram overwhelmingly lashed out at the Likud party on Tuesday for equipping election observers at polling stations in Arab towns with cameras.
Residents of the two towns in the Galilee sharply criticized the ruling party’s scheme in conversations with The Times of Israel, 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.”
Likud officials told the Kan public broadcaster that party activists were given cameras to collect footage of voting booths in areas that they alleged were at high risk of voter fraud.
According to Hebrew media reports, some 1,200 concealed cameras were found at polling stations in Nazareth, Sakhnin, Majd al-Krum, Tamra, Taybe and Rahat, towns with majority Arab populations. The reports said a handful of cameras were also discovered in ultra-Orthodox ballot stations.
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At the Ibn Sina School, Mohammed Diab, an election observer affiliated with Balad, said he discovered two election observers linked to Likud wearing cameras. He said that he called the police immediately.
“After the judge determined the cameras violated the law, the police officers confiscated the cameras,” he said.
Almost immediately after the cameras were discovered, outgoing Balad MK Jamal Zahalka and the Hadash-Ta’al party submitted complaints about the cameras to the Central Elections Committee.
Zahalka alleged in his complaint that the “illegal” action by the “extremist right” was a bid to deter Arabs from exercising their right to vote.
Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Hanan Melcer subsequently said Israeli law only permits filming at polling stations during “extraordinary circumstances,” and ordered Likud to remove the equipment.
Diab said another unidentified individual came to the polling booth at the school later in the day and started filming, but the police quickly apprehended him.
David Eliyahu, one of the election observers affiliated with Likud who was wearing a camera at the school, refused to comment.
Despite Zahalka’s contention that the cameras sought to scare Arabs away from voting, all 22 people The Times of Israel interviewed, including those who said they did not plan to cast a ballot, said the cameras did not intimidate them.
A 42-year-old Tamra resident who asked to remain nameless said that the cameras undermined her trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his party.
“How am I supposed to have confidence in the government when the ruling party is wiling to flagrantly violate election rules?” she said. “What is going to stop them from breaking the law to gain what they want in office?”
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.”
Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether elections observers affiliated with Likud were ousted from polling centers in Arab towns.
Forty-two-year-old Mohammad Diab, a truck driver from Tamra, claimed that the cameras were a part of a series of moves Netanyahu has carried out against Arab Israelis.
“He pushed the nation-state law through the Knesset and then he said we are not full citizens,” Diab said. “With the cameras today, he is bringing his attacks on us to a head.”
The quasi-constitutional nation-state law enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, declared Hebrew the state’s sole national language, and included no reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Netanyahu also recently posted on Instagram: “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.”
Shfaram Deputy Mayor Faraj Khanfiss said he was surprised that Likud felt the need to videotape polls in Arab towns.
“There were clear indications that the Arab vote was going to be low and that is indeed what happened today,” he said in a phone call. “I’m not quite sure why the Likud thought it made sense to make such an investment in cameras.”
Turnout in Arab communities stood at only 46% as of 9 p.m., according to Hadash-Ta’al. In In the 2015 elections, 63.7% of Arabs cast ballots.
Sultan Raed, 32, a businessman in Shfaram, said he thought Netanyahu and Likud should be held accountable for the cameras.
“Netanyahu and his party tried to denigrate the Arab voters and humiliate them with this ploy,” he said. “It should not pass without any consequences. It is important that they pay a price.”
According to Kan, police opened an investigation into the camera activity.