Sneaking Palestinian votes into Israeli polling booths

(Real Democracy Facebook page)

(Real Democracy Facebook page)

On January 22, Israel will hold its parliamentary elections to elect its prime minister and the parties that will make up the 120-seat Knesset. What is discussed far less is that Palestinians living under occupation — who, between Gaza and the West Bank make up more than 35 percent of the population effectively controlled by Israeli authorities — are unable to vote, despite the fact that Israeli policies directly or indirectly control every aspect of their daily lives.

Many Israelis — particularly Arab citizens of Israel — have chosen to boycott the elections, citing Israel’s increasingly right-wing politics or a refusal to legitimize the ongoing occupation. Other Israelis critical of their government’s policies will still be voting — but instead of half-heartedly voting for the lesser of a host of evils, they will enable a disenfranchised Palestinian to vote in their place.

Real Democracy, “a Palestinian-Israeli electoral rebellion,” is a social media campaign that uses the Internet to connect Israeli citizens who wish to give their vote to Palestinians who want to have a political voice. “We are basically saying that if there is no Palestinian state — and Israel is doing everything in its power to keep that state from forming — then Palestinians should be able to vote in Israel,” Aya Shoshan, an Israeli activist and one of the organizers behind Real Democracy, explained. “This is the basic criterion for a democracy: voting rights. You can’t start building a real democracy without at least a one-person one-vote system.”

On the Real Democracy Facebook page, Israeli citizens generally start a thread stating their intention to give their vote to a Palestinian, and Palestinians comment with their desired political candidate or party and as much of their personal story as they wish to share. Sometimes it works the other way around.

“As a citizen of Palestine, I have no vote in the Israeli Knesset that sends the soldiers to Hebron,” Omar Abu-Rayyan, a 19-year-old student from Hebron in the West Bank, wrote on the website. “As a citizen, especially a Palestinian citizen, I have no voice in the United Nations, the organization that is supposed to ‘maintain international peace and security.’ I would be happy to join your ‘electoral rebellion’ to protest the lack of real democracy in Israel and at the U.N.”

Real Democracy founder Shimri Zameret, 28, then responded, “Dear Omar, thank you very much. I would be happy to give you my vote.” Zameret concluded his comment by resolving, “For the rest of my life, as long as my Israeli citizenship gives me access to more political power, I will give my vote to a citizen of Palestine.”

So far, the campaign is largely symbolic; having been launched only a month before the election, it is more of a political statement and gesture of solidarity than an electoral force. Still, many Israelis have voiced their opposition to the campaign, asking their fellow Israelis who are participating questions like “Who is going to vote for you in ‘Jews-free Falasteen?’” and personally messaging organizers to let them know that they are “self-hating scum.”

Despite criticism, the organizers and participants have not faced any formal threats — though one Israeli Defense Forces soldier chose to remain anonymous to avoid punitive measures.

This is not the first time that activists have organized to give their votes to a disenfranchised population. In 2010, thousands of voters in the United Kingdom participated in the “Give Your Vote” campaign that allowed citizens in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana — countries highly affected by the military and global trade policies of the United Kingdom — to have their voices heard in the elections. Before creating Real Democracy, Shimri Zameret participated in the Occupy London protests and, inspired by England’s success in fostering a “borderless democracy,” decided to bring the idea to his native Israel.

“The local context of the situation in Israel and Palestine is a much more clear cut lack of democracy — and a much easier case to make,” Shoshan told me.

Although the Palestinian territories are technically governed by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it is Israeli — not Palestinian — authorities that grant or deny Palestinians what political rights they possess. For example, even though the Mountain Aquifer — which is the main water source between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea — runs underneath the West Bank, Israel controls it completely. As a result, 80 percent of it is allocated for Israeli settlements, leaving a mere 20 percent for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The Israeli occupation also severely restricts Palestinians’ freedom of movement. Throughout the West Bank, permanent military checkpoints and blocked roads control whether or not residents can move between villages. Arbitrary curfews and closures sometimes keep them from moving altogether. In the Gaza Strip, Israel controls the air, sea and land borders; in order to leave, Gazans need to obtain a permit from the Israeli authorities. These permits are often denied, effectively trapping Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps the most decisive way in which Israel circumscribes the political freedom of Palestinians is by building settlements — a process that often involves forcefully evicting Palestinians from their homes, razing Palestinian villages and replacing them with Jewish-only communities. These settlements make the West Bank even more fragmented for Palestinians who must live around the settlements and avoid the settler-only roads. Villagers are displaced en masse, often finding themselves in refugee camps elsewhere in the Palestinian territories or in another Arab country.

Each of these policies — how resources are disproportionately allocated, whether or not checkpoints will be open or closed, and settlement construction — is dictated by Israel. “In many ways, a Palestinian living in the West Bank or in Gaza is much more affected by the Israeli authorities — decisions made by the prime minister and other politicians — than I am,” Shoshan said.

If Palestinians under occupation could vote, perhaps some of the Arab-Jewish parties — such as Balad, Da’am or Hadash — would enjoy more representation in the Knesset and be a part of the ruling coalition, which they are currently excluded from. Though Arab citizens of Israel do have the right to vote, many of them abstain from voting, either because they are purposefully boycotting the elections or, due to the extreme poverty of most predominantly Arab communities of Israel, because they have lost faith in the political process. Meanwhile, the viable political parties in Israel remain skewed towards the right or the extreme right.

I asked Shoshan about the difference between showing dissent through boycotting the elections and giving her vote to a Palestinian. “We wanted to take a symbolic action that was both an act of solidarity with our Palestinian friends and a challenge to Israeli democracy,” she said, “We are taking power into our own hands and saying, ‘If you don’t give Palestinians a vote, we will.’”

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