By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 5, 2006
KFAR QASEM, Israel -- Ibrahim Sarsur, the former mayor of this Arab city with a view of Tel Aviv's skyline, stepped onto the plywood platform soon after the evening call to prayer. Over his shoulder, a green banner warned, "Voting for the Zionist parties is supporting those who spilled our blood, robbed our land and violated our holy places."
"If you give your vote to them, a Jew will enter and an Arab will not," Sarsur shouted to the hundreds of men filling rows of white plastic chairs in a smoke-filled community center. "Islam has opened our hearts -- this is our message.
"Why do you have to vote?" he asked, then answered his question: "For this program that connects this life with the next life."
With national elections less than a month away, parties that represent Israel's Arab population are struggling to maintain their small foothold in the Israeli parliament. As the parties grapple with new legal barriers, fresh competition and a frustrated constituency, at least one coalition is drawing a lesson from Hamas's recent victory in the Palestinian territories: The solution is Islam.
The United Arab List has adopted an explicitly Islamic message in the hopes of inspiring thousands of Arab voters who have boycotted past elections. Using Koranic verse and showcasing religious candidates, Sarsur's party, called the Islamic Movement, and its secular-nationalist partner are seeking to unite Israel's religious Islamic parties, who like their more radical Palestinian counterparts have long disagreed over whether to take part in elections that, in effect, presume the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
By winning a parliamentary majority in its first national elections, Hamas has validated for many members of Israel's religious Islamic parties the virtue of participating in mainstream politics. But the Islamic turn here has alarmed a coalition of Zionist parties, which narrowly failed last week to have the United Arab List disqualified from the March 28 elections for advocating the creation of an Islamic state in Israel.
"Hamas gave the Islamists here an example to follow," said Jafar Farah, director of the Musawa Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. "The Arab parties will never win a majority here, so their position is much different. But Hamas's participation has affected positively the discussion within Israel's Islamic movement."
In a recent interview at his home, festooned with ribbons celebrating his second pilgrimage to Mecca this year, Sarsur said the success of his candidate list depends on his ability to get Islamic voters to the polls. Only 62 percent of eligible Arabs cast ballots in Israel's 2003 elections, their lowest turnout in a parliamentary election. The goal this time, Sarsur said, is to increase turnout by 10 percentage points. By his estimate, that would translate into a two-seat gain for the Arab parties in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
"We are concentrating on the religious elements, using religious terminology, in trying to appeal to the hearts of those who have been boycotting," Sarsur said. "We are trying to persuade all Islamists that having us in the Knesset is of greater value than a boycott."
The Arab families who remained in their villages during Israel's 1948 war of independence account for roughly 20 percent of the Jewish state's 6 million people. Though citizens of Israel, they face discrimination in immigration policy, land ownership, education and public employment, either explicitly or in the application of the law.
They are also viewed with suspicion by Israel's security services, who fear they might be a Palestinian fifth column concentrated in a strip of towns running north from here along the 1949 armistice line into the Galilee region. When Arabs in these towns erupted in protest at the start of the most recent Palestinian uprising in the fall of 2000, 13 were killed as Israeli security forces put down the riots.
Now the victory of Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, has revived fears over the intentions of Israel's Arab citizens. Last month, the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, warned that "a Hamas government along the borders of Israel could have an impact on the Israeli Arabs and the Islamic organizations in Israel. This could be a problem."
"When we hear people at the top political levels saying we are a threat, it can only make us very anxious," said Sarsur, who heads the Islamic Movement's southern branch. "The Judaization of the state threatens us. But we want to be Israelis in the civil sense of the word."
The Arab parties are a collection of religious Islamic parties and communist and secular-nationalist movements, and together they hold eight of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats. They exert influence on the margins, but sometimes in important ways. Arab support for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last year helped ensure its passage in parliament.
Since the 2003 election, however, the threshold to qualify for a Knesset seat has been raised from 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the popular vote, raising doubts that the three Arab groups in parliament will keep their spots. Arab leaders say the Kadima party, the centrist group formed late last year by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is likely to peel off some Arab voters now that Sharon is unable to run because of a debilitating stroke. And the Labor Party will enter elections behind Amir Peretz, whose long tenure running Israel's labor federation, a bastion of Arab workers, has made him a popular candidate to many of them.
"The Arab political situation is very, very bad," said Asad Ghanem, head of the government department at the University of Haifa. The Arab parties' candidates, he said, "are seen by many in the Arab public as opportunistic, as politicians who only want to hang onto their seats. It may be that the Arab public will punish these Arab parties."
Like Hamas and the smaller radical group Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, which lie about a mile east of this city's palm-lined medians and green-domed mosque, Israel's Islamic movement is split over the best approach toward a political system endorsed by Israel.
The movement's northern branch, led by Raed Salah, has urged followers to boycott Israeli elections. The longtime mayor of Um el-Fahem, Salah has been in and out of Israeli jails for the past two decades for having contacts with anti-Israel groups, including Hamas.
But Salah recently softened his message. Following the Islamic Movement's convention a few days after Hamas's Jan. 25 victory, the northern branch announced that its "followers have the right to take a position in the Knesset elections that is in accordance with our ideological understanding and our national feelings."
The statement could provide a boost to Sarsur's southern branch, whose base is this former farming community of 20,000 that now mostly provides cheap labor to the service industries on Israel's coastal plain.
Sarsur, a slight, garrulous man with a tidy gray beard, was born here in 1959 -- three years after Israeli border police killed 49 villagers for violating curfew at a time when the Arab population of Israel was living under military government. A dozen of his relatives were among the dead.
He studied English literature at Bar-Ilan University and hoped to teach in a high school. But he gave up after the Education Ministry rejected his application for nine years. He ran successfully for mayor and is now a civil engineer.
Campaign literature emphasizes Sarsur's title as "sheik," a religious leader. And three of the top five candidates on the list -- which includes the nationalist Arab Renewal Party -- are with a religious Islamic party.
"We have strong relations with Hamas in Gaza," Sarsur said. "And we can play a very constructive role in this process. We know the mentality of the Islamists in the occupied territories. And we know the mentality of the Israelis."
At twilight, Kamal Ibder, his bushy beard streaked with a white stripe, draped party banners around a traffic circle at the entrance to town. "Our power," the signs declared, "is in our unity."
When Ibder is not driving a forklift at a Coca-Cola plant near Tel Aviv, he is a foot soldier for the Islamic Movement. He ascribes what he believes is its growing support to the same kind of grass-roots social work that made Hamas popular among Palestinians.
"When it comes to the Islamic Movement, we're talking about a party that takes care of the needy, as opposed to the others who only care when the elections come," said Ibder, 43. "I am very optimistic."