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Vote crucial to Israeli Arabs

QALANSUWA, ISRAEL — QALANSUWA, Israel -- Striding past drab concrete homes, shuttered businesses and dusty coffee houses where old men played backgammon, Ibrahim Sarsur, leader of Israel's new united Arab political party, appeared determined on a recent afternoon to lift the flagging spirits of this poor Arab farming village.

Young campaign volunteers waved green flags representing Islam. Arabic music blared from loudspeakers. Shouting into a microphone, Sarsur urged residents to remember to vote next week in Israel's parliamentary elections and, above all, remember who they are when they cast their ballots.

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"The Israelis will always look out for the interest of the Jews and will not look at you with respect," Sarsur told a gathering of about 100 men seated in plastic chairs in an empty lot, listening to him describe the goals of the United Arab List. "We should defend ourselves. We should defend our identity."

With national elections taking place Tuesday, Israel's Arab parties are battling to hold on to their small slice of power in Israeli politics.

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As a minority group in the Jewish state, Arabs have long struggled for equality in jobs, pay, housing, benefits and government attention. But in these elections, Arab leaders are feeling increasingly vulnerable, afraid they could lose what little representation they have in Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Israel's Jewish or Zionist parties are seeking to woo Arab voters who have grown frustrated by the failure of the Arab parties to deliver significant improvements to Israeli Arab communities.

In a survey of Israeli Arab voters by Tel Aviv University, only 50 percent were projected to support Arab parties in the election, down from 64 percent in 2003. Arab political parties also face having to secure a larger number of votes than in the past to win any given seat, reflecting growth in the country's population and in changes to election rules.

Most worrying, analysts and Arab politicians say, are signs of increasing apathy and resentment by Israeli Arabs about the coming elections, which may drive a huge bloc of potential voters to boycott the election.

Campaign basics

These trends have forced Arab parties to go back to the basics of campaigning, focusing on voter turnout and ethnic and communal loyalty.

"I don't recall an election campaign where the Arab parties invested this much energy in launching a campaign against Zionist parties and trying to convince voters to come to the ballot," said Elie Rekhess, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Looking to re-energize Arab voters, Sarsur's United Arab List also relies on another, relatively new influence in political campaigning: Islam. Inspired by the success of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that swept elections in the West Bank and Gaza, the United Arab List is giving its rallies a distinctly Islamic feel.

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In Qalansuwa, the campaign rally began with a muezzin reciting selections from the Quran. Green Islamic movement flags - the same flags as those visible during Hamas rallies - surrounded the stage. Supporters cried out "God is great!" during the rally and passed out green armbands. Only men attended the rally.

"The only solution is Islam," Sarsur said in an interview. "Islam will bring 1.4 billion people to stand directly with us in our challenges. They have the capacity to contribute in building the most tremendous and marvelous human society."

Sarsur's United Arab List is a coalition of his own Islamic Movement and two nationalist parties. But his is not the only advice Israeli Arabs are hearing. He is leader of the southern Islamic movement in Israel. The leader of the northern faction, Ra'id Sallah, has called on Israeli Arabs not to participate in the election. Other predominantly Israeli Arab parties include Israel's small Communist Party and traditional nationalist groups, all of which are participating in the campaign.

Collectively, those parties hold eight seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament. Although powerless to enact meaningful legislation on their own, they have proved to be crucial on key votes such as the decision to evacuate the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Israel's right-wing parties pushed unsuccessfully last month to disqualify Sarsur's party from participating in the elections after the Israeli press quoted him as saying that he wanted to create an Islamic state on Arab land in Israel. Sarsur said he was misquoted, saying what he wanted inside Israel was equality.

Minority status

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The 1.3 million Israeli Arabs account for about 20 percent of the country's population. Although they are full citizens, they have longed faced discrimination in land rights, health, education and employment, and complain they are no better than second-class citizens.

"My people have been here for a thousand years, but someone who arrived two days ago from Ethiopia or Russia has more rights than me," said Khalil Abu Ras, 48, a secretary at the Qalansuwa high school.

"We Arabs should not participate in these elections," he said. "Elections are based on democracy, but as a minority we don't have the benefits of democracy."

In Qalansuwa, a town of 17,000 people between the Israeli seaside city of Netanya and the West Bank city of Tulkarem, the economy has been on the decline in recent years as family farms have shut down, unable to compete with large commercial farms, said Zmiro Hamdan, the former deputy mayor and now campaign manager for the United Arab List. About 20 percent of the population is unemployed, he said.

"We are suffering from Israel's barbaric acts," he said. "They are killing the Palestinians directly. They are killing us indirectly by destroying our economy."

The years of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians placed Israeli Arabs in an awkward position, as they maintained Israeli citizenship but expressed their sympathies and allegiance to the Palestinian people. Many hawkish Israeli politicians responded by talking of Israeli Arabs as a threat; some Israelis suggested that borders be changed to put some Israeli Arab villages into the West Bank, in exchange for territory from the Palestinians.

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"The name of the game is blaming the victim," said Issam Makhoui, a member of the Israeli Arab party called the Democratic Front for Peace. "Israelis relate to Arabs not by relating to their problems, but by relating to them as a problem."

Sarsur says the Israeli mainstream should reconsider its view of Israeli Arabs.

"They should be thinking about me not as a fifth column but as an integral part of the country who might contribute a lot for the building of this state and might contribute a certain bridge between Israeli Jews and the Arab and Muslim world," Sarsur said.

jmurphy@baltsunnews.com


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