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Palestinian Israelis are divided and disillusioned as election nears

A campaign billboard of the Palestinian Israeli lawmaker Mansour Abbas, the head of the Raam party, is seen on a busy road in Haifa, Israel, on Oct. 12. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

LOD, Israel — In Israel’s last election, just a year and a half ago, Anwar Sawalhi cast his ballot for the Arab Islamist party Raam. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, went on to make an unprecedented gamble: taking Raam into Israel’s governing coalition, a first for an Arab party.

In Sawalhi’s view, the bet did not pay off. The 52-year-old father of four has seen little improvement in the lives of Palestinian citizens in this mixed Arab-Jewish town. This time around, he’s voting for the left-wing nationalist Balad party, which pollsters say has little chance of surpassing the threshold required to enter the Knesset, Israel’s 120-member parliament.

On the eve of the election, disillusionment reigns among Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who say discrimination and violence still punctuate their daily lives — even with an Arab party in the government.

In a razor-thin contest between political camps divided over their stance toward former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is angling to return to office, every seat counts. The Palestinian vote could prove decisive.

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Israel has roughly 2 million Palestinian citizens, many of whom are descended from families that remained in Israel after the country’s creation in 1948, when many Palestinians fled or were expelled. Although they hold Israeli citizenship, they face bigotry from many of their Jewish compatriots and marginalization by the state.

Palestinian Israelis are divided over whether to cast a ballot at all. Those who plan to vote Tuesday face a more fragmented Arab political landscape — “the exact opposite dynamic of what the Arab public wanted,” according to political analyst Mohammad Darawshe.

Before the last election, Abbas’s Raam party broke off from the Joint List, the Arab umbrella party that won 15 seats in the Knesset in 2020. This year, there are three Arab slates: Raam; a coalition composed of the communist Hadash party and the secular nationalist Ta’al party; and Balad. Recent polls predict they will get a combined eight seats.

Sami Jariri, 40, the owner of a hookah shop in Lod, has sworn off voting entirely. His father cast a ballot for Raam in the last election, Jariri said, when the moderate Islamist party joined a diverse coalition united by opposition to Netanyahu. But having an Arab party in government — and, since July, a center-left prime minister, Yair Lapid — has not led to safer neighborhoods, he said.

“Before, we cared about who is going to be the prime minister,” he said, sitting behind the counter and puffing on a water pipe. “Now, my only concern is who is going to protect Lod.”

The city’s Palestinian neighborhoods have grown more dangerous, he said, and politicians have ignored the problem. Nearly 130 Arabs died in crime-related killings in Israel in 2021, according to the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit organization.

Jariri has lost friends and a 21-year-old cousin to the violent crime wave. He mounted a CCTV camera on his house. But when a man was shot dead in front of his home, Jariri said, the police did not ask to see the footage.

“People get killed here left and right, and nobody cares,” he said. “One Jewish person gets killed in the same circumstances and the whole of Israel gets turned upside down.”

Concerned about the safety of their sons, ages 11 and 18, Jariri and his wife are considering moving to Turkey.

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A lack of jobs and opportunities for young Palestinian residents has prompted some to turn to crime, Jariri said. Lod also experienced an outbreak of communal violence during the Israel-Gaza war in May 2021, when several people were shot in clashes among Palestinian residents, far-right Jews and police.

About 70 percent of Lod’s nearly 80,000 residents are Jewish, and Jewish nationalists have moved into Arab neighborhoods in recent years to increase their majority. Since the clashes last year, Sawalhi said, racism has intensified.

“Before, if you wanted to buy an apartment from a Jewish guy, you could,” he said. “Now, he will tell you frankly, ‘I will not sell to Arabs.’ ”

Sawalhi says he will vote for Balad on Tuesday because he sees the party’s leader, Sami Abu Shehadeh, as someone who “can fight racism.” Ahmad Hassouna, 49, sitting across from Sawalhi at a horse training center in Lod, agrees. “What’s good about Sami Abu Shehadeh is he asks for coexistence and equality,” Hassouna said. “It’s not too much to ask; these are our rights.”

The disillusionment is magnified by Israel’s ongoing security crackdown in the occupied West Bank, where many people here still have relatives and where clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians have escalated in recent months. So far, 2022 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in 16 years, according to the United Nations. The situation is fueling a sense that Lapid’s “change government” has brought more of the same.

Many Palestinian Israelis have grown frustrated with Jewish center-left parties, traditionally seen as their natural political partners, Darawshe said, a circumstance that is likely to depress Palestinian turnout.

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Sill, Hassouna said, it is important for Palestinian Israelis to play the political game and to partner with Jewish parties to foil the rise of the far right.

“It’s in our best interest not to have a right-wing government. We don’t want to see Ben Gvir as the interior minister — he hates us Arabs,” Hassouna said, referring to Itamar Ben Gvir, an extreme right-wing, Jewish nationalist politician who is allied with Netanyahu and is surging in the polls. Ben Gvir has advocated for expelling “disloyal” Palestinian citizens from Israel.

But many Palestinian voters are focused instead on which Arab politicians can best deliver tangible improvements to roads, schools and housing.

Zaher Hamad, a court translator who lives in Jaffa, said that living standards have deteriorated in her community and that people think political leaders are out of touch. Still, she’s encouraging her fellow Palestinian citizens to vote.

“The most important issue in Jaffa is the housing problem; it’s very difficult,” she said. Hamad plans to vote for Shehadeh, whom she knows personally. “Anything you need, he will do his best to help you,” she said.

Shehadeh’s party has climbed slightly in the polls but remains below the 3.25 percent of the vote required to win a seat in the Knesset. The Joint List and Raam, meanwhile, are projected to win four seats each.

Shehadeh told The Washington Post on Friday that he thought his party would pass the threshold and that Arab turnout would be strong.

“Maybe a month ago, I would have been much more worried, but it seems to be that the competition between the three different parties has raised the voting,” he said.

A poll released Thursday by the Israel Democracy Institute appeared to substantiate that view, indicating that just over 50 percent of Israel’s Palestinian citizens are “certain” they will vote, compared with earlier polls’ findings that turnout would be closer to 40 percent. Arab turnout in the last election was just under 45 percent.

But, depending on how the election math shakes out, there’s a real possibility that Israel could go from having an Arab party in the government to having no Arab representation at all in the Knesset.

“I think we’re at the edge of a very negative earthquake in Arab politics,” Darawshe said.

Sufian Taha contributed to this report.

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