Residents of the Galilee city of Sakhnin trickled into classrooms in a small school on Tuesday to cast ballots in Israel’s second national elections in 2019.
Two hours after the voting booths at the Al-Salam Elementary School in the center of town opened at 7 a.m., only some 30 voters had cast ballots. Sahknin is home to approximately 30,500 people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trying to get the vote out among his supporters, claimed later Tuesday that Arab turnout was higher than ever since 1984; if so, it wasn’t being felt here.
It was largely quiet at the voting station, with a single police officer sitting on a bench in the school’s playground and most polling workers inside the classrooms.
Hamad Khalailah, a 28-year-old lawyer who said he voted for the Joint List, an alliance of the four largest Arab-majority parties, remarked that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party’s efforts to place cameras in polling stations in Arab communities did not make him hesitate to cast a ballot.
“I wasn’t scared to come here,” he said, standing outside a classroom. “It is my right to vote and Netanyahu will not stop me from doing that.”
In last April’s national elections, Likud equipped some 1,200 of its polling station representatives in Arab towns with cameras. Many Arab Israelis blasted the scheme as “racist,” noting that it specifically targeted their community.
Likud claimed that the action aimed to stymie voter fraud, which it has alleged is rampant in Arab communities.
After the Central Elections Committee ruled that Likud could not equip its polling station representatives with cameras during Tuesday’s vote, Netanyahu attempted to push a bill through the Knesset to override the election organizer’s decision.
The legislation ultimately failed to garner broad enough support to become a law.
Masoud Ghneim, a former member of Knesset representing Ra’am — one of the four factions that make up the Joint List — echoed Khalailah’s sentiment about Likud’s efforts to place cameras in polling stations.
“Netanyahu hasn’t scared me from voting,” he said, sitting on a bench near the entrance to the polling station. “I am only scared of one thing: a low turnout.”
The 12 Sakhnin voters interviewed for this article all said the Likud’s camera scheme last April and its abortive effort to pass a law permitting cameras in voting stations on Tuesday did not make them fearful of going to voting booths to cast ballots. They also all said they were voting for the Joint List.
In the last national elections on April 9, fewer than half of Arab voters cast ballots, according to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, which put Arab turnout in that vote at 49.2%. (The national turnout was 68.5%.) In contrast, some 63.5% of Arab Israelis cast ballots in the March 2015 ballot, the report said.
The Joint List reported on Tuesday that the turnout in Arab towns and villages was slightly higher as of the early afternoon than that of April’s vote, but said it was still lower than the general participation rate.
Analysts have cited several reasons for the low voter turnout in April, including the dissolution of the Joint List before those elections, and passage of the nation-state law. Before the last national vote, the Joint List split into two alliances — Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad, but they reunified in late July after the Knesset dissolved itself, forcing new elections.
The contentious nation-state law, which the Knesset passed in July 2018, enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, and declared Hebrew the state’s sole national language.
Yasser, a 33-year-old teacher who declined to provide his family’s name, said he also was concerned about low turnout.
“If we want to be able to obtain our rights, the Arab community needs to vote in high numbers,” he said. “I think we’ll have a slightly greater number of people voting this time, but that is not enough.”
But Yasser specifically predicted a particularly low turnout of voters at the polling station at Al-Salam Elementary because Balad member Mazen Ghnaim was not included on the Joint List.
“Many of the people living in this area are members of the Ghnaim family,” he said. “Mazen, one of their family member from here, was supposed to be on the Joint List, but he was taken off at the last minute. So a lot of the residents in this area don’t want to vote.”
Ghnaim ran for Knesset on Ra’am-Balad’s slate in April when 81% of eligible voters in Sakhnin cast ballots, but he was not included on the Joint List’s slate for Tuesday’s vote.
Nonetheless, Masoud Ghnaim, the former MK, said he believed most residents of the area would vote in the afternoon.
Down the road on the far east end of Sakhnin, dozens of voters were flowing into a voting station at the new Ibn Khaldoun Middle School.
Shafiqa Ahmad, a 52-year-old teacher, said she cast a ballot for the Joint List, contending that it best represents Arab Israelis.
“The Joint List stands up for our community. It demands our rights and brings attention to our issues,” she said.
In the last elections, 94% of Sakhnin voted for either Ra’am-Balad or Hadash-Ta’al.
Ahmad said she hopes the Joint List will try to join a governing coalition following the elections.
“We want to be a part of decision-making,” she said. “We are a part of this country and want to do everything we can to get our rights. We know that joining the government will help us accomplish that goal.”
No Arab-majority party has ever joined the governing coalition.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, however, outlined to Yedioth Ahronoth in late August his conditions to join a center-left government, including a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an end to Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians, the establishment of a new Arab city, an end to the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, and other measures.
In a tweet on the same day the newspaper ran the interview, Odeh added another condition — Israel ending its military rule over the Palestinians — which did not appear in the article.
A number of his fellow Joint List candidates later slammed Odeh for his proposal to join a center-left coalition.
Abu Rayya, a Sakhnin resident in his 60s, disagreed that Joint List should join the government.
“We want to impact decision-making, but from outside the government,” he said. “We can’t be in a government because we can’t agree with all of its decisions, especially in times of conflict.”
Some two kilometers away in the nearby village of Arabba, 62-year-old Muhannad Shibli, said he did not plan to vote.
“Voting won’t change the situation,” he stated, sitting in his car in front a shawarma shop on the main road of the town of some 25,000. “There is no value to doing it. All the politicians, including those in the Joint List, only care about themselves.”
Several voters, however, were pulling into the Al-Batouf Middle School in Arraba, where 59% of eligible voters participated in the elections in April.
Yousef Khatib, a 66-year-old contractor, said he was voting for the Joint List, hoping to contribute to Netanyahu’s ouster.
“I know that a high turnout of voters for the Joint List will be bad news for Netanyahu,” he said. “I hope we can achieve that and finally be done with him.”