Arab-Israeli voters seek retaliation against Barak

Vote boycott planned in wake of crackdown

January 26, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NAZARETH, Israel - As if Prime Minister Ehud Barak's standing with Israeli voters weren't bad enough, he is now haunted by one week last fall that turned a large bloc of one-time supporters, Arab-Israelis, into political adversaries.

Beginnining Oct. 1, Arab-Israelis rioted throughout northern Israel in sympathy with the Palestinian uprising. Israeli police responded with tactics used by the army to quell violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. Thirteen Arab-Israeli demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured.

Now it's payback time. On Feb. 6, when Israelis elect their next prime minister, many of the approximately half-million Arab-Israeli voters plan either to boycott the election or cast a blank ballot, even if it means helping to elect a candidate they have historically disliked.

This is bad news for the candidacy of Barak, who drew overwhelming support from Arab-Israelis when he was elected prime minister in 1999. Knowing that a blank ballot would effectively be a vote for his rightist challenger, Ariel Sharon, many Arab-Israelis profess not to care.

"If there is a boycott, it's a turning point," said Elie Rekhess, a professor at Tel Aviv University who closely follows political trends among Arab-Israelis. "Arabs traditionally participated in very high numbers."

Developments in Israel's volatile political scene could get Arab voters to change their minds before the election, he says. But he added: "This is a new era that could represent a growing division between the Arab minority and the Jewish majority."

Israel's Arab citizens have long dwelt uneasily in a land controlled by a Jewish majority that sees itself as facing a continuing threat to its existence from the Arab world.

While sharing many of the rights of Israeli Jews, they do not serve in the military, an important rite of passage for Israelis, and say they have long faced discrimination in education, jobs, social services, housing and treatment by law enforcement agencies. They also complain of encroachment by Israeli authorities on their ancestral lands.

Although Arab-Israelis represent one-sixth of the population, their political clout has been weakened until now by divisions among political factions, from the fundamentalist Islamic Movement to the Communists.

But with the events of Oct. 1 still vivid in her mind, Khowla Khoury, 46, a Nazareth gynecologist, plans like many others to cast a blank ballot.

That day, angry crowds poured into the streets of Arab towns and villages to protest tactics used by the Israeli military to quell riots in the Palestinian territories. It was one day after 12-year-old Palestinian Mohamed al-Durra was caught in a cross-fire and killed as he huddled with his father and three days after Ariel Sharon's provocative walk on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

Joining in the protest with other members of her family near Mary's Well, a public square in Nazareth, Khoury looked up at one point to see a policeman pointing a gun at her chest as another officer was beating her sister.

As she tried to break away to help her sister, she said, a policewoman struck her with a gun butt, pushed her to the ground and stepped on her abdomen, cursing her and telling her to go home. A policeman kicked her in the womb. Khoury emerged with bruises; her sister suffered a shoulder fracture.

Unlike the uprising in the Palestinian territories, Arab-Israeli riots dissipated within a week, as leaders gained control and persuaded police to withdraw from Arab areas. But the shock of that week lingers on both sides, with echoes of shouts of "Death to the Jews" and "Death to the Arabs."

It was the first time Arab-Israelis remember police using deadly fire against them in more than 20 years. Human rights groups say there was no justification for Israel's use of deadly force, because the demonstrators were armed, at worst, with Molotov cocktails.

Israeli Jews suddenly felt the full force of Palestinian hatred being directed at them by fellow citizens, who blocked roads and burned businesses. Actions of hostile mobs on both sides were compared with pogroms.

The Barak government has expressed regret over the violence, but stopped short of an apology.

In a speech before an overwhelmingly Arab crowd here last night, Barak said the blood of the 13 Arab-Israelis killed "is as precious as the blood of all citizens."

"An encounter between police and citizens in a democratic state should not end in blood," he said. "I understand the feeling. We shall do everything so that something like this does not recur."

By aggravating deep-seated feelings of deprivation among Arab-Israelis, the incidents tore at their longtime effort to fit in with Israeli society. Increasingly, they identify with the Palestinians.

"The idea was of `one Israel,'" said Rekhess. "If there is a trend toward a separatist inclination, then we are in a new stage."

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