Likud tells media it installed cameras outside Arab polling stations

Footage of men setting up surveillance devices ‘capable of facial-recognition’ seen as part of Netanyahu strategy to depress voter turnout in minority communities

An Israeli Druze woman leaves after casting her vote during parliamentary elections on September 17, 2019, in Daliyat al-karmel in northern Israel. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)
An Israeli Druze woman leaves after casting her vote during parliamentary elections on September 17, 2019, in Daliyat al-karmel in northern Israel. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party installed dozens of cameras outside polling stations in Arab cities ahead of Tuesday’s elections, and then leaked that fact to the media, apparently as part of a bid to discourage members of the minority group from voting.

Footage published by Channel 13 purported to show Likud members installing “dozens of facial recognition cameras outside Arab polling stations” overnight Monday. The short clip tweeted by the TV news channel showed two men installing a camera outside a polling station in a village near Nazareth.

Channel 13 later clarified that the cameras, which it had described as facial-recognition-capable, were not equipped to monitor voters in real time; instead, it said Likud officials would review the footage after the election to look for evidence of voter fraud, which the party claims is rampant in Arab cities.

Journalists and others on Twitter were quick to question the report, saying the cameras seen in the video were not capable of identifying faces, nor would the Likud have access to a large enough database of photos to effectively identify individual people. Some speculated that Likud leaked the footage to Channel 13 as part of a campaign strategy to depress Arab turnout by intimidating members of the minority, who are wary of government surveillance.

A Likud spokesman declined to comment on the report to The Times of Israel.

Likud was recently prohibited from providing its representatives inside Arab polling stations with cameras, as it did during the previous vote, in April, when the party equipped some 1,200 representatives in Arab towns with hidden cameras to monitor the vote.

Likud at the time claimed the action was aimed at stymieing voter fraud, which it has alleged is rampant in Arab communities. But critics charged that the party’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

Many Arab Israelis blasted the scheme as “racist,” noting that it specifically targeted their community.

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.

MK Ayman Odeh, leader of Joint List alliance, a mainly Arab Israeli Party, casts his ballot accompanied by his family during Israel’s parliamentary election at a polling station in Haifa on September 17, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

Turnout has emerged as a key element for this election day, which is a national holiday aimed at encouraging participation. In April, national voter turnout was about 69%; the Arab turnout in that vote stood at only 49.2%.

Heavier turnout by Arab voters, many of whom stayed home in April, could hurt Netanyahu.

After casting his ballot Tuesday, Joint (Arab) List chief Ayman Odeh said Netanyahu was “obsessive” in his incitement toward Arabs. He said the answer was that his constituents “must be first-class voters on the way to becoming first-class citizens.”

As of 4 pm, the Central Elections Committee said 44.3% of eligible voters had cast their ballots, marking a slight increase over the figure at the same time in April.

According to the Joint List, the turnout in Arab towns and villages was slightly higher as of the early afternoon than in April’s vote, but said it was still lower than the general participation rate.

Facebook on Tuesday reportedly removed at least 82 accounts suspected as fake that promoted a boycott of the elections among Arab Israelis, seen as a further attempt to suppress the vote in that community.

The profiles had been sharing posts in popular Arabic-language forums encouraging a boycott of the elections, according to the Haaretz daily, which said Facebook’s action followed a complaint by the group The Democratic Bloc, which flagged more than 130 accounts it believed were unauthentic.

Netanyahu’s warnings that his defeat in the polls would result in the formation of a left-wing coalition with Arab support have been a centerpiece of his campaign, along with the ultimately unsuccessful bid to allow party operatives to bring cameras into polling stations.

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