Israeli-Arabs take anger to ballot box 
 By Heather Sharp 
BBC News, Nazareth  

It seems everyone on the chaotic, slightly scruffy streets of the
Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth is still seething about Israel's
operation in Gaza.  
"Nobody agreed to this
massacre," says gently-spoken restauranteur Dokhol Safadi, 41, who
swears by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and
condemns rocket fire against southern Israel. 
Until 27 December, Jewish customers came from "all over Israel" to sample his 
chefs' renowned Arab cuisine. 
But most of them stopped visiting as the fighting in Gaza put relations
between the Arab fifth of Israel's population and the Jewish majority
under severe strain. 
And now projected gains for the far-right party Yisrael
Beiteinu ahead of 10 February elections are ratcheting up tensions
The party, popular with immigrants from former-Soviet countries, calls
for the transfer of Israeli-Arab areas to the control of the
Palestinian Authority, and a citizenship law demanding all citizens
pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state. 
The party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman was a key player
in a vitriolic war of words with Israeli-Arab politicians who protested
against the Israeli operation in Gaza. 
Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi accused the
government of genocide and said every vote for outgoing PM Ehud
Olmert's Kadima party was "a bullet in the chest of a Palestinian
child", according to Israeli media reports. 
In return, Mr Lieberman called him a terrorist and said
some Arab MKs should be dealt with as Israel dealt with Hamas. The
right-wing leader also pushed for a ban on the participation of two
Israeli-Arab parties in the polls - which was later overturned by the
Supreme Court. 
Israeli Arabs are people of Palestinian origin whose families remained
in what is now Israel after the state was created in 1948. 
They have the full rights of Israeli citizens, although discrimination has been 
widely documented. 
Analysts expect them to express their anger at the ballot box in two ways. 
Some, like Elham Abu Ahmad, 40, will abandon Israeli parties. 
Tucking into sticky orange sweets at a cafe in Nazareth's main streets,
she says she is angry with herself for backing Labour leader and
Defence Minister Ehud Barak last time. 
"He is a criminal. I wish he would die," she says of
the man who played a major role in the launch of the Gaza operation,
adding that she plans to vote for an Israeli-Arab party instead. 
Others will boycott the vote altogether, like Ahab Ody, 21, who works in 
"Nobody deserves a vote. Nothing improved and the war affected me. I feel like 
it doesn't change anything if I vote." 
Israeli-Arab participation in elections, about 70% during the 1990s,
plummeted to 18% in 2001 in protest at Israel's response to the
Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. 
Turn-out has not fully recovered - in 2003 it was 62%, falling to 56% in 2006. 
Analysts blame frustration with both the divisions between the
Israeli-Arab parties and the lack of influence they have in the Israeli
Knesset, where Israeli-Arab parties are rarely involved in the power
play of the coalition-based political system. 
The other factor this time is Mr Lieberman, whose party
may even beat Labour into third place on the back of a general swing to
the right among Israeli voters enthusiastic about the Gaza operation. 
Anat Tolnai, 40 and Ihsan Ka'biya, 35, a Jewish-Arab
couple, see his popularity as linked to what Israeli-Arab organisations
say is a growth in racist attitudes. 
"'Kill the Arabs' used to be a phrase used only on the extreme right - now 
people say it much more," says Ms Tolnai. 
The couple are planning to vote for the mainly Arab party Hadash, after
the left-wing Israeli party Meretz that they usually support backed the
Gaza operation. 
Mr Ka'biya said he had planned not to vote, but Ms
Tolnai "convinced me that if we don't vote, we are supporting
Loyalty call  
A short drive away, amid the neatly landscaped verges of Nazareth-Illit
- a mainly Jewish nearby town, Yisraeli Beiteinu's local office is in a
small, dim room above a row of shops with signs in Russian. 
Alex Gadalkin, leading the local campaign, sits below a poster declaring "no 
loyalty, no citizenship". 
"We don't hate the Arabs," he says, repeatedly, when asked about the party's 
controversial policies. 
"We want them to serve the country like the country serves them," he
says, "they get a lot of things, we just want them to give something". 
But the question of Israeli-Arab opposition to the war remains thorny. 
"To say the war is wrong is freedom of speech, but to oppose the army,
or the citizens of the south who suffer from rocket attacks, that's not
OK," he says. 
"To raise the Palestinian flag or sing the songs of Hamas, is not OK," chips in 
another party activist. 
"They want us to be silent or to agree with them," says Israeli-Arab MK Ahmad 
He says he is opposed to rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians,
but "no one can accept the formula that the reaction to a panic attack
in Sderot should be a river of blood in Gaza". 
Delicate line  
There has long been fear among Israelis that the Israeli-Arab
population in their midst is a fifth column, ready to support
Palestinian attacks on Israel. 
But Israeli Arabs tread a delicate line, fearful of
losing the rights and economic opportunities they enjoy as Israeli
Pressed repeatedly on whether he supports any kind of
attack on the Israeli military, Mr Tibi says: "I prefer the negotiating
table - but if Israelis are killing Palestinians, then Palestinians are
saying 'we are defending ourselves'." 
And on the streets of Nazareth, few will give a straight answer on whether they 
have sympathy with Hamas. 
"It's not sympathy for Hamas, it's about who's being killed - if you
say someone's killing, but you're also killing - then who's the killer?
Nobody's better than the other," says snack bar manager Ahab Issa, 28. 
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/02/05 11:45:14 GMT


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