Arab City at Center of Israeli Poll Dilemma

Every time hostility against Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens escalates, Umm al-Fahm—which has the second largest Arab population after Nazareth—is at the epicenter. As Israelis headed to the polls Tuesday clashes between Arab residents and police broke out when an election monitor from the radical rightist National Jewish Front tried to enter the town.

The anti-Arab campaign reached its peak during the current elections, intensifying its residents’ feelings of oppression and marginalization when the Central Elections Committee decided to allow far-right activist Baruch Marzel to serve as a poll monitor. Police later prevented him from entering.

"We have come to condemn the racism and this fascist," one of the demonstrators told the paper. "We want to live in peace, but we won’t let any racist into Umm el-Fahm. He won’t enter our home."

Arab party banners swathed the city enterance. "We are staying" and "Our people are stronger" read the Arab party banners. With only nine out of the Knesset’s 120 seats they are contesting the elections and trying to garner support of Israel’s 18 percent Arab minority.
Target of Hostility

"Talk about deporting Palestinians and exchanging Arab population inside Israel with settlements is an ongoing discourse, and Umm al-Fahm is the center of this campaign," said lawyer Hussein Abu Hussein, a native of the city overlooking Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

"For 50 years, Umm al-Fahm has been the target of hostility campaigns. They created a state of mental hostility,” Hussein told AFP Sunday. “Now the extreme right wing is focusing its campaign on us while there is no mention of peace at all. But we are staying."

The city, located 560 meters above the sea level and surrounded by pine trees, suffers from lack of services manifested in its neglected roads and humble buildings.

"Like the rest of the Arab population, we suffer from flagrant discrimination as far as municipal budgets are concerned. The share of an Arab is half that of a Jew," said Abdul-Latif Husari, secretary of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (HADASH) at the Knesset.

"Aspects of poverty take the shape of a national plan directed against the Arab population. The percentage of the unemployed among them is 10 percent, compared to eight in all Israel," Husari said from his Umm al-Fahm office.

"These numbers are misleading. Towns plagued with unemployment are mostly Arab, and the rate of unemployment is very high especially among university graduates who find it very hard to find jobs due to discrimination." 
To Boycott or not to Boycott

The absence of industrial zones close to the city, Husari argues, is a perfect recipe for poverty because it deprives its residents from a good income and forces 12,000 of its laborers to travel daily to do hard labor inside Israel. "The city has become like a hotel that accommodates them when they get back in the evening."

According to official figures, 65 percent of Arab-Israeli children live below the poverty line, compared to 35 percent among the general population. According to the same figures, the income of Arab families is only 60 percent of that of a Jewish family.

HADASH, the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), and the United Arab List focus in their campaigns on encouraging Arabs to vote in order to resist discrimination and the threat of losing their civil rights.

"They do not want us in the Knesset and our response is voting. Not voting is an award for Israel, and strengthening our representation means power for Palestinians inside," said Jamal Zahalka, leader of Balad, which has three MPs.

In an electoral gathering in the village of Kafr Qaraa, adjacent to Umm al-Fahm, Zahlaka stressed that giving up this power means weakening them. "We are in a very difficult situation and we have to face the Israeli society which is getting more racist and more right-wing."

But their efforts to increase voter turnout were face contradictory calls urging Arabs to boycott the elections for ideological reasons, like the Ibna al-Balad (Sons of the Country) which calls for boycotting in Umm al-Fahm.

Forty-four percent of Arabs boycotted the previous elections and Ighbaria expects the percentage could reach 50 percent in the current elections. In the previous elections, 30 percent of Arab voted Israeli parties.
Residents Views Differ

The views of Umm al-Fahm residents vary. While tile setter Ekrema Aql said that the killing he saw in Gaza made him realize participation would be futile, construction workers Mahamid Ibrahim and Wessam Zoghbi find the war on Gaza an incentive to vote for Arab parties.

"Voting for a Zionist party will be like taking part in throwing bombs on Gaza," Ibrahim said. Similarly, Zoghbi said he would vote for an Arab party to "weaken Lieberman." Avigdor Lieberman heads the anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party.

The northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which opposes Knesset membership, did not publicly call for boycotting the elections. "Throughout 60 years, the Knesset hasn’t given us any of our rights, but is oppressing us even more," said movement leader Sheik Raed Salah. "The Knesset has turned into a perjurer in our lives. It bestows legitimacy on the oppression we’re suffering from."

Salah added that all Israel wants a Jewish state and that this serves as a prelude for the deportation of Arabs. When asked about fear of marginalization, Salah said, "We’ve been suffering from marginalization all our lives since the nakba. We realize that Israel looks at our presence as temporary and dreams of getting rid of us."

(AFP via

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