Dozens of residents of the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm protested against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday outside of a medical clinic as he visited the facility to boost Israel’s vaccination campaign.
Netanyahu was on hand to mark what he said was the millionth Israeli to receive a vaccine and as part of an effort to boost vaccinations in the Arab community. He visited another Arab town on Thursday and said he plans to visit others in the coming days.
Arabs constitute around 20 percent of Israel’s population and have been relatively slow to embrace the vaccination campaign, prompting Netanyahu to launch the series of visits to Arab localities, his first in years, in what is also seen by many as an attempt to score political points ahead of the March elections.
Netanyahu indicated Friday he is planning to campaign heavily for Arab votes in the coming election, despite past tensions with the community surrounding previous votes, including rhetoric seen by many as racist.
Some of the demonstrators at Umm al-Fahm said Netanyahu was using the town for a publicity stunt, that he had made a surprise visit to avoid meeting protesters on his way in and accused his government of neglecting Arab communities, especially regarding violent crime and infrastructure.
“The residents of Umm al-Fahm are not fans of Netanyahu or the right in general, due to the policy of incitement and racism [Netanyahu] has led toward the Arab public,” Mahmoud Adib Aghbaria, a local leader, told Walla News. “The feeling is very negative.”
“We haven’t forgotten his statements and policies,” he said. “We still think he views us, Arab Israeli citizens, as enemies.”
Yousef Aghbaria, another resident, told the news site Netanyahu would do better to take care of the town’s failing infrastructure and crime problem.
“I’m going to get vaccinated and I don’t need Netanyahu to come and tell me to get vaccinated,” he said. “What has he done for us for 20 years? There’s no funding, crime is raging and racism is at an all-time high.”
A lawyer from the city, Ahmad Khalifa, said, “It saddens me to see a man like this sneak into our city without informing us ahead of time, without the public knowing to welcome him as Umm al-Fahm knows how to welcome racists.”
Umm al-Fahm’s mayor, Samir Mahamid, welcomed the vaccination event in the city, and urged Netanyahu to address the issue of violent crime in Arab communities and improve the city’s infrastructure.
Arab Israelis have long complained of a tide of violent crime in their communities — 2020 saw 96 homicides in the Arab population, representing a 50 percent jump in the murder rate among Arab Israelis in only four years.
Arab parliamentarians and civil society organizations have repeatedly decried the plague of violence in their communities and accused Israeli authorities of failing to stem the tide.
Several Arab lawmakers lashed Netanyahu over the visit to Umm al-Fahm.
MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List alliance of Arab majority parties claimed Netanyahu had ejected the clinic’s staff from the facility ahead of his visit.
He posted a photo on Twitter of a group standing in a street, some of whom appeared to be medical workers, and wrote, “Medical staff, mostly nurses, were removed from the clinic in Umm al-Fahm two hours before the arrival of Prime Minister Netanyahu and waited outside.”
הצוות הרפואי לרבות אחיות הוצאו מהמרפאה באום אלפחם שעתיים לפני הגעת ראש הממשלה נתניהו וחיכו בחוץ. אטימות וכפיות טובה מול העבודה המסורה של הצוות הרפואי. pic.twitter.com/54ORXbBtwC
— Ahmad Tibi (@Ahmad_tibi) January 1, 2021
Sami Abu Shehadeh, an MK with the Arab-majority Joint List alliance, said, “Umm al-Fahm is like all of Arab society — Netanyahu is not a welcome guest and is not wanted. His need to sneak into the city like a thief and leave the same way says it all.”
Yousef Jabareen, a Joint List MK from Umm al-Fahm, said, “Once he scared the public by saying we were ‘flocking to the polls.’ Now ‘flocking to vaccinations is Netanyahu’s new election propaganda.” Netanyahu gained global notoriety for warning his supporters on election day 2015 that “Arab voters are flocking to the polling stations in droves.”
Netanyahu’s Likud has campaigned in the past on unfounded claims of electoral fraud in Arab communities, and he has repeatedly demonized Arab lawmakers in the Knesset.
In recent months, however, he appears to have formed a quiet alliance with the Joint List’s MK Mansour Abbas, to the chagrin of Abbas’s colleagues.
On Thursday during an unprecedented visit to the Arab town of Tirah to encourage vaccination, Netanyahu said he did not rule out placing an Arab lawmaker on his right-wing list in the election.
Netanyahu told Channel 13 on Friday that the Arab vote had “huge potential.”
“For many, many years the Arab public was outside the mainstream of leadership. Why?” he said. “There’s no reason. People contribute, people work. Let’s go all the way. Be part of the full success story of Israel. That’s what I would like to be exemplified in the election.”
Recent opinion polls have shown Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of its rivals as Israel heads to a new election in March, but without a clear path to forming a coalition, signaling the potential for ongoing political gridlock as the country holds its fourth election in two years.
Elections were called last week after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. They are set to take place on March 23, 2021.
Israel’s vaccination campaign is in full swing, and it has so far greatly outpaced other countries, per capita, with 11.55% of the population inoculated, according to statistics from the Our World in Data website operated by Oxford University.
Israel is currently in its third nationwide lockdown to contain the outbreak. It has reported more than 426,000 cases and at least 3,338 deaths since the pandemic began.