Attorney warns of violence by 'private militia'

With cameras banned, new right-wing patrol seeks to ‘prevent Arab voter fraud’

Election czar set to rule on new initiative by settler leaders that would see dozens stand outside polling stations to provide ‘feeling of security’ for ballot officials inside

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

An Arab Israeli man prepares to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
An Arab Israeli man prepares to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The Central Election Committee held a hearing on Sunday over a new right-wing initiative to combat alleged voter fraud in Arab towns, days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to gain a majority in the Knesset to pass legislation that would have allowed party operatives to film at the ballot box.

Last week, a group of settler and national religious leaders launched an online fundraising campaign for an initiative they titled “Gatekeepers.” The organizers said they will use the NIS 100,000 ($28,336), they hope to receive to fund the salaries of hundreds of individuals recruited to stand outside polling stations in ballot stations in Arab towns and cities. The initiative is designed to “protect” the polling committee officials representing right-wing parties inside, organizers maintained.

Subsequently, attorney Shachar Ben Meir petitioned to the Central Elections Committee, demanding that the panel order Gatekeepers to cease its activity. Ben Meir argued that it was tantamount to hiring a “private militia,” which will interfere with the election process and could possibly lead to violence at the polls during Tuesday’s vote.

Melcer will hand down his ruling in the coming days.

A video accompanying the plea for funds shows four clips recorded at Arab community polling stations in the 2015 election, during which polling committee members can be heard suggesting tampering with the ballot count.

The Central Election Committee holds a hearing on whether to allow the Gatekeepers initiative on September 15, 2019. (Screen capture/Facebook)

“We will not allow the left-wing bloc to steal the elections,” the video caption declares, employing rhetoric identical to that used by Netanyahu over the past several weeks while lobbying in favor of the Camera Bill.

“On election day, we’ll dispatch hundreds of guards who will protect the poll watchers. Donate to Gatekeepers and prevent the election fraud in the Arab sector,” the video concludes, with harrowing music playing in the background.

Signed on the bottom of the fundraiser are Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz, Beit El Local Council chairman Shai Alon, former Samaria Regional Council chairman Benny Katzover, Samaria Settlers’ Committee chairman Tzachi Dickstein, former Binyamin Settlers’ Committee chairman Itzik Shadmi, former Jewish Home official Haim Falk, former Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Moshe Seville, along with actor and Beit El resident Hagai Luber.

Fundraising largely fails, but activists press on

As of Sunday night, the campaign had only reached 22 percent of its goal ($7,340).

Falk acknowledged in a phone call with The Times of Israel that the fundraising had failed and that they currently only have enough money to pay for 40 activists, who would be responsible for patrolling roughly 120 polling stations. However, he remained optimistic that additional donations would come in over the next two days allowing for the employment of others. Moreover, he said that he expected some activists to volunteer for the campaign without asking for payment.

During Sunday’s hearing, Falk told Melcer that the middle-aged men recruited as part of the Gatekeepers initiative will stand outside the polling stations and provide a “security blanket” for the young polling committee officials inside, most of whom are in their early 20s.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the head of the Central Elections Committee, is seen at the Knesset on April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In April, the Likud party equipped some 1,200 of its polling station representatives in Arab towns with hidden body cameras. At several locations, the discovery of the recording devices led to skirmishes between Likud officials and local poll workers, who were frustrated at having been targeted in the covert operation.

The operation’s organizers subsequently boasted having been responsible for reducing Arab voter turnout to its lowest-ever rate.

Likud has enlisted twice as many young adults — mostly from the national religious sector — to serve as polling station representatives on Tuesday, but this time Melcer has barred them from bringing cameras.

Nonetheless, the Gatekeeper organizers insist that extra assistance will be needed to protect the young polling committee members working on behalf of right-wing parties in Arab towns.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Meir argued in the hearing that the initiative was nothing more than a “racist” provocation that was solely targeting Israel’s Arab minority.

Falk dismissed the claim that the activists he had recruited would violently intimidate Arab voters — a charge made by Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz last week.

Police oppose it; attorney general hesitant

Queried by Melcer for his opinion on the initiative, an Israel Police representative said that law enforcement had enough resources to maintain order at polling stations and that it was its job to protect polling committee members in case of emergency, not private individuals.

Melcer also asked Falk to ensure that the activists outside polling stations would not be armed.

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

Moreover, the police representative said that the presence of the partisan Gatekeepers could make it more difficult for the police to maintain order.

The dovish Labor party issued a statement last week saying it was recruiting “thousands” of its own activists to also stand outside Arab community polling stations in order to combat “Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] bullies.”

Shortly after the hearing, the Attorney General’s Office issued a legal opinion saying that as long as the Gatekeepers members remained at least 10 meters away from the polling station and did not stray from its self-stated goal of simply providing support to polling committee members when necessary, “there is no evidence that justifies issuing an injunction.”

Earlier Sunday, the election czar turned down Netanyahu’s request for an “emergency” meeting to discuss the premier’s claims of rampant voter fraud in the Arab community.

Netanyahu’s request came a day after a report in the Maariv daily alleged that police had questioned only two out of 82 election officials who reported irregularities at their voting stations during the previous elections in April.

Likud has recently claimed that Ra’am-Balad, an alliance of two Arab parties that cleared the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes by a margin of just a few hundred ballots, had made it into the Knesset thanks to fraudulent votes. The ruling party asserted that Ra’am-Balad’s purported fraud had deprived Likud of a majority coalition in the 120-member Knesset, and forced Netanyahu to call the new round of elections on September 17.

The party’s claim has not been substantiated by evidence and a police investigation into voter fraud has found only minimal tampering, with some known cases of fraud benefiting Likud or the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote during elections for the Knesset on April 9, 2019, at a polling station in the northern town of Tayibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Furthermore, police only found sufficient evidence to justify a criminal investigation at one of 140 polling stations flagged by Likud for alleged fraudulent activity by Arab Israelis.

The Times of Israel obtained records from over 100 polling stations that were found to have irregular voter turnouts relative to the figures at adjacent stations. While a portion of those polling stations were located in Arab towns, they made up less than a third of the total, which also included irregular turnouts in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, as well as the cities of Petah Tikva, Afula, Netanya, and Rosh Ha’ayin.

Some analysts have seen Likud’s claims that rival parties are trying to steal the elections as a ploy to shore up backing among right-wing voters and have likened it to Netanyahu’s comments on election day in 2015 that “Arab voters are coming in droves to the polls,” remarks he later apologized for amid widespread condemnation.

To counter the alleged voter fraud, Netanyahu championed a bill to allow political parties to bring in recording devices to polling stations, but it failed to pick up sufficient support to make it past a preliminary vote last week.

The government advanced the proposed legislation despite the opposition of the attorney general, the head of the Central Elections Committee, and the Knesset’s legal adviser.

Critics of the bill said it was designed to suppress voter turnout among Arab Israelis.

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