Israel's Arabic Citizens Plan Election Boycott

A growing number of Israel's Arab citizens are planning to boycott January's parliamentary elections. Already, pollsters say that fewer Arabs will vote in the upcoming elections than ever before. Palestinian leaders in Israel say it is because each year the government becomes more right-wing and they feel more ostracized.

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In Israel today, the highest court ruled a controversial Arab lawmaker can run in next month's parliamentary elections. Supporters of Hanin Zoabi say she is a popular representative of the more than one million Arab citizens of Israel. Her Israeli detractors say her political views undermine the State and its institutions and that she and her party should be banned.

Reporter Sheera Frenkel has the story from Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOB)

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: This was the scene at Israel's Supreme Court last week after a panel of judges heard opening statements in Hanin Zoabi's case. A group of right-wing politicians attacked Zoabi as she left the courtroom. Here they're screaming: You are a terrorist. And: Go live in another country.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOB)

FRENKEL: Zoabi's supporters fought back, among them was Dr. Bassel Atas who's currently running on the same slate as Zoabi. He says he wasn't surprised that violence broke out after the hearing.

DR. BASSEL ATAS: This is another game of the representatives of the groups of the fascist Knesset member (unintelligent) who shouldn't be allowed to be in the Knesset.

ITAMAR BEN GVIR: She's a terrorist.

FRENKEL: He's interrupted by Itamar Ben Gvir, a political activist who is currently running for office on a right-wing party list, called Strong Israel. He says he came to the courthouse specifically to confront Zoabi. And he wasn't sorry about the ensuing violence.

GVIR: (Foreign language spoken)

FRENKEL: He says he understands that Zoabi is angry at being called a terrorist. But Ben Gvir says that is what she is, adding that she should not be allowed to return to Israel's parliament.

The upcoming elections have reignited tensions among the country's various political groups. But nowhere are the arguments quite so explosive as between right-wing nationalist movements, like that of Ben Gvir, and the Arab parties running for seats in parliament, or Knesset.

Zoabi, a young woman with strong political views, became the focus of efforts to ban her Balad Party after she joined other activists on board a Turkish ship that tried to breach the Israeli imposed maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. Israeli commandos stormed the vessel and in clashes onboard, nine Turkish activists were killed.

Israel's Central Elections Committee said that Zoabi's involvement in the incident constitute an action that undermined the State of Israel. They banned her from political office on the basis of a petition filed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party.

Today, the Supreme Court overturned the ban in a unanimous decision, saying that Zoabi could run in the upcoming elections. Right-wing groups have already promised to protest the decision.

Sawsan Zaher is a lawyer for Zoabi. She says that while they are happy that the court ruled in Zoabi's favor, many Arab citizens of Israel have already lost trust in Israeli institutions.

SAWSAN ZAHER: It's kind of a new phase. People - or mainly the Arab minority in Israel are losing the trust in the official authorities.

FRENKEL: She points to polls which show that for the first time, less then 50 percent of Israel's Arab voters will cast ballots on Election Day. She says that moves to disqualify Arab politicians like Zoabi are the tip of the iceberg, and points to recent legislation that was unpopular in the Arab community, like a law that banned events commemorating the flight of Palestinians after Israel's creation in 1948.

ZAHER: When the laws themselves are looking at the Arab minority as the other as the enemy as the ones and the population and group that is not wanted, mainly of course it results in the loss of trust towards the legislature by the minority.

FRENKEL: Zaher says that despite today's victory, Israel's Arab population continues to feel disenfranchised. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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