In Umm al-Fahm, the largest Arab city in Israel, there’s no atmosphere of elections in the air. While the Arab parties are all abuzz just from the possibility of uniting to pass the voting threshold, the citizens they wish to represent couldn’t care less. Unlike what unfolds in the city during more exciting times, there are neither billboards in the streets nor graffiti on the walls. At the cafes and in the market, the elections are mentioned merely as a sad anecdote. Nobody believes that change will follow the elections; quite the contrary.
Slated to take place in just over two months on March 17, the elections, which could significantly affect the status of Arab Israelis in the country, do not really interest them. Indifference would be the mot juste to describe the voices I heard while visiting the city Jan. 5, to gauge whether this time Arab Israelis will change their electoral pattern since the 2001 elections — a pattern ranging from boycott to disinterest — and will cast their vote.
“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will be elected the next prime minister anyhow, and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman and [Minister of Economy and Trade Naftali] Bennett will join hands with him. So why should we take part in this charade?” asked Mohammad Agbaria, a meat store owner. The shoppers at the store all agreed with him. “Nothing will change and nothing will happen,” said Ibrahim, who presented himself as a father looking to provide for his three small children.
“The Arab vote could have an effect on the results of the elections,” I insisted. Yet, from their trenchant replies I understood what the people in Umm al-Fahm mean when they say nothing will change. “Even if Netanyahu isn’t elected and is replaced by someone else — that won’t change our situation. Look at the way we live. Nobody bothers to look in our direction. We’re like air, transparent — in everything. Even the Israeli media show no interest in us. They only think of us when elections take place. They come to see how we vote. The hell with them,” said Issam, a member of one of the largest families in town who asked not to be identified by his surname, the reason for which I later understood.
“So you won’t even vote?” I asked him.
“I might vote for the Hadash Party, but only so that the Islamists don’t get more votes from the communists,” Issam replied.
“You choose to vote only because of internal wars and not to improve the standing of Arabs in Israel?” was my next question to him.
“Things won’t change,” he reiterated. “What can the Arab Knesset members do? Let’s say that they get 20 [out of 120] seats. Everybody else will gang up on them so they would have no impact. They’ll take action to weaken them so the Arabs would have no influence. So what difference does it make?”
During a tour of the city, which is regarded as the capital city of Arab Israelis, it is hard not to see the great neglect and lack of resources beleaguering the Arab towns — cracked sidewalks, potholes in the roads and narrow alleyways. This neglect is a result of patent discrimination that cannot be swept under the rug and from which the Arab towns in Israel have been suffering for dozens of years. In recent years, this discrimination has become more blatant and depressing.
At the entrance to Umm al-Fahm, next to the gas station, a group of construction workers waited for their ride to take them to a work site. “We’re daily laborers — one day is good, the next one not so much,” Nazim Mahmid told me. “The situation isn’t good, it’s getting worse and worse here. There’s no work, and especially here in Umm al-Fahm, the economic situation stinks.”
“Do you think that will change?” I asked.
“Sure it will,” he said, “for the worse.” The workers around all burst into laughter.
According to Mohammad, one of the other workers, “The economic situation in the country is hard, very hard. But our situation is even worse. We’re the first ones to be kicked out. If Jews have no money and no work and no livelihood, what will the Arab person say?” His friend Hassan added, “I’m not talking just about racism, which is now stronger than it has ever been in Israel. I’m talking about work, about winning bread. If the plant has 200 employees and 50 are laid off, the first ones to be booted out are the Arabs and only then the Jews. And if the Jew finds another job, the Arab will find it much harder.”
“And how’s that related to the elections?” I pressed.
“Oh, it’s related alright,” Hassan replied. “We feel more and more discriminated against and that we no longer have a part in this country. We’ve been removed. If, for example, we were to vote for the left, Meretz or Labor, will our situation change? No it won’t.”
I asked the group of workers if the possible unification between the Arab parties did not encourage them to vote. “I think more people will vote if the unification goes through, but not a whole lot more,” Nazim replied. “Those that support the religious people will vote for them and the same goes for those who support the communists. It’s also possible that some people who used to vote for an Arab party won’t vote for a unified slate. Those that support the communists, or say the non-religious, will not want to give their vote to the Islamists. Those supporting Balad hate Hadash or Ra’am. You Jews don’t understand the problems and tensions among us. As far as you’re concerned, they’re all Arabs. But that’s not the way it works.”
A survey conducted by the Arab weekly Kul al-Arab is expected to be published this weekend. It reveals that some 80% of Arab Israelis support the unification of the Arab parties ahead of the upcoming general elections. It predicts that the number of Arab voters will rise from 56% in the previous 2013 elections to 62% this time. This doesn’t herald a dramatic shift that will change Israel’s political map, but a relatively small one, similar to the sentiments expressed by the residents of Umm al-Fahm.
The absence of hope is the most salient feature among Arab Israelis. They make no special preparations ahead of the elections, nor do they mobilize to bring about a political change to try combating discrimination. Many Arab Israelis feel they’re not an integral part of the State of Israel, which for years has done everything it can to keep them distant and alienated.