The Israeli Elections in Nazareth: a Beginner’s Guide


Israel has caught election fever.  Last October, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he was rescheduling the next national elections for January 22, 2013.  Since that day, parties from across the political spectrum have jockeyed for position in the public’s favor.

Recent polls confirm what many Israelis have known for years.  The religious right is gaining influence.  In fact, the single biggest story of this election has become the meteoric rise of settler-hero and conservative icon Naftali Bennett.  He advocates the annexation of areas in the West Bank and he favored a ground invasion of Gaza during Operation Pillar of Cloud. Netanyahu and the new Likud Beitenu party he formed with Avigdor Lieberman are still projected to win handily.  However, Bennett has pledged to join a Netanyahu-led coalition after the election, so each percentage point he climbs in the polls wins him more influence in the future ruling coalition.

As in all aspects of public life, the veering Israeli political discourse has very little presence in Nazareth, the capital for Arabs in Israel. Palestinian Arabs would never vote for Naftali Bennett’s Habayit HaYehudi party (“The Israeli House”).  He comes from an ideological school similar to Meir Kahane, the radical rabbi whose most famous scion, Baruch Goldstein, famously murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994. Needless to say, Bennett’s rise does not mean an end to the increasing flow of discriminatory legislation, which has further abused the rights of Palestinians in the last few years. The democratic process functions, but Palestinian citizens have such extreme positions (relative to the mainstream discourse) they have been pushed from political viability.

Naftali Bennett gives a speech at a campaign event.  A recent profile in the New Yorker described Bennett as "the face of the next generation of Religious Nationalism"

Naftali Bennett gives a speech at a campaign event. A recent profile in the New Yorker described Bennett as “the face of the next generation of Religious Nationalism”

Winners and losers are chosen by Jewish Israelis, but in Nazareth the elections are still a big event. With all that in mind, what do national Israeli elections look and feel like in Israel’s largest Arab city?

First things first, how do Israeli elections even work?

When an Israeli citizen walks into her voting station on Election Day, she will see a ballot with a list of parties on it, not names.  That is because Israel has a proportional representative system.  Each party chooses a “list” of candidates that best represent their collective beliefs and people vote for a list.

Traditionally, lists are comprised of candidates from a single party, but in the past multiple parties have submitted joint lists.  This is the case with current Likud Beitenu list.  Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu agreed to run on a joint list for this election. Citizens vote by list and the amount of seats a party wins is based on their list’s percentage of the vote.  Parties like Shas, Likud Beitenu, and Yesh Atid are projected to win a large percentage of the vote, so they publicly campaign with long lists of candidates.  For example, Likud Beitenu is polling at 28.8%, which would earn them 34.5 seats in the Knesset.  That alone is not enough for a ruling majority.  After the election, there will be a period of negotiations that will form a ruling coalition.  So, despite Netanyahu’s party only capturing 34 out of 120 total seats, he will be able to organize a coalition of right wing parties and run the Knesset with over 70 members of the Knesset (MKs) behind him.

For the Palestinian minority, the minimum requirements are a more relevant function of the proportional representation system.  You see, there are many more political parties in Israel than those currently holding seats in the Knesset.  These are parties that win less than 2% of the popular vote. There are three Arab parties with seats in the current Knesset: The United Arab List (Raam-Ta’al), The National Democratic Assembly (Balad), and The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash). Each of these three promotes non-Zionist views and purports to serve the needs of the Palestinian minority.  Ta’al and Balad are purely Arab lists where Hadash is an Arab-Jewish communist party.  In the current Knesset, the United Arab List has three seats, Balad has three, and Hadash has four.  So, when the Arab parties campaign, they have much shorter lists than Likud-Beitenu.  Hadash, for example, has seven faces depicted on their campaign posters.

I thought 20% of Israel’s citizens were Palestinian, why aren’t Arab parties winning more seats?

It’s true, there are 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, yet their favored parties only win ~9% of the Knesset’s seats.  The numbers don’t add up.  American readers may be quick to explain away the dissonance with apathy. The real reason why there are not more Arab Knesset Members is the Arab boycott.

The history of Palestinian citizens’ voting trends mirrors the history of the Arab/Israeli conflict.  In the beginning – from the war in 1948 to the war in 1967 – Palestinian citizens lived under martial law. There was a separate court system for them, curfews were in effect, and travel permits were a necessity.  Even under those strict rules, the early secular Zionists awarded many Palestinians living in Israel citizenship. The peak voter turnout for the Palestinian minority was 1955 when 90% of Arabs voted.  From 1955 to 1981 there was a gradual increase in Palestinian voting, then a gradual increase from 1981 through 2001.

The percentage of Palestinian citizens of Israel who vote in Israeli elections over the Israel's history

The percentage of Palestinian citizens of Israel who vote in Israeli elections over the Israel’s history

In the early 1990s, the Arab parties played a critical part in supporting Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s diplomatic efforts that led to the Oslo Accords.  Then in 2000 the Second Intifada broke out in the Occupied Territories and Palestinians in Israel rose up in solidarity.  Israeli security forces reacted with violence and 12 Palestinian citizens were killed in the protests.  As a result of this harsh antagonism, the Palestinians organized a mass boycott of the 2001 elections.  Since then the inequality in rights enjoyed by Palestinian and Jewish citizens has only grown and the amount of Palestinians who choose to boycott has grown with it.  This coming election is projected to have fewer than 50% of Palestinian citizens vote.

Why not vote? 

There are four categories that most justifications for boycotting fall into.

  1. Indifference towards Israeli politics
    1. Palestinian citizens have had more than 60 years of experience being ignored by the political mainstream.  There is a common sentiment that it just doesn’t matter any more.
  2. Self awareness of political insignificance
    1. These first two points are inextricably linked.  Apathy is bred from marginalization.  The marginalization of the Palestinian minority is ingrained in the fabric of Israel, due to its institutional definition as a Jewish and Democratic state.
  3. Disappointment with Arab leadership
    1. This is the reason most often cited by mainstream Israeli politicians.  They claim that Arab MKs have given up on the day-to-day struggles of the Palestinian citizens in favor of the larger struggle for Palestinian nationalism
  4. Protest
    1. Since the massive boycott in 2001, this faction has grown larger and larger.  In the months leading up to the election, Nazareth has hosted multiple high profile public events in which the merits of boycotting as a protest were weighed in a formal debate.  This is a telling sign.  The most important debate leading up to the elections for Palestinians in Israel was not between candidates, but between boycotters and voters.

Local civil society leader and general director of the Arab Association for Human Rights, Mohammad Zeidan, is boycotting the election.  He describes his position; “65 years of participation was more than sufficient for people to realize that their participation has no impact on their status.  In fact, it was used by Israeli to show that it is a democracy in which the minority has the rights to be represented.  The participation was used against the goal of equality in Israel.” Mohammad directed me to this video of PM Netanyahu addressing the US Congress.  In it he describes how Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and uses the equality of the Palestinian minority to defend his statement.

Mohammad went on to analyze how the boycott is perceived, “boycott is becoming more legitimate as a political expression, rather than just not showing up.” The Saturday before the elections on the 22nd, there was an organized protest drive through various Arab cities in the Galilee.  This event and others like it are attempts to make boycott a public act of protest.

This past Sunday, the Arab League published a formal call on Arab citizens of Israel to participate in the elections. The request was motivated by a fear of the rising influence of far-right parties, but many among its target audience fail to see a persuasive reason to listen. Susan Barhoum, a Nazarene Christian, still plans to boycott. “My vote will not stop the discriminatory legislation.  It doesn’t matter.”

So if Palestinian citizens do choose to vote, who do they vote for?

Even though more and more Palestinian citizens are choosing to boycott, voting is still a popular option.  Fahim Dahoud is an Arab and a lawyer living in Nazareth Illit.  He is planning on voting this Tuesday.  “I want to change something.  First of all, I think it is my duty as a citizen.  If all Arab Palestinians vote, we can change the map.”  He went on to describe a precarious electoral balance, “The difference between the right and the left is five votes.  If 70% of Arabs vote, we can change the balance.”

There are three major non-Zionist political parties.  By that I mean these parties advocate a restructuring of the Israeli government from one based on Zionist principles to one prioritizing democracy and equality for all citizens.  These parties are the Islamist-leaning Raam-Ta’al, nationalist Balad, and communist Hadash.


On the left in white, a poster for Raam-Taal. In the center in orange, Balad. On the right in red, Hadash

Ta’al was formed in the mid-1990s by Ahmed Tibi.  Tibi is currently the head of the party and its most outspoken member.  He was a vital and ubiquitous critic of Operation Pillar of Cloud as well as a target for Zionist enmity due to his relationship with Yasir Arafat.  In the 2009 elections Ta’al was running as a part of the United Arab List, but were disqualified from participation by the Central Election Commission.  Tibi took the decision to the Supreme Court where it was overturned.  He is on record stating, “This is a racist country. We are accustomed to these types of struggles and we will win.” This coming election will see Tibi’s Ta’al once again leading the United Arab List.

Haneen Zoabi is second from the right on this Balad poster

Haneen Zoabi is second from the right on this Balad poster. The character inside the white box is the Arabic letter that will show up next to the party’s name on official ballots.

Nazarenes call the party more commonly known as Balad by its Arabic name al-Tajamu.  Balad is a party more focused on Palestinian nationalism and advocates for a bi-national Israel in which only the principles of democracy guide government.  It was also formed in the mid-1990s and is currently led by Jamal Zahalka.  However, Balad has been in the news lately more for the case of Haneen Zoabi. Ms. Zoabi, a Nazareth native, is the first Palestinian woman to ever be elected to the Knesset. Two weeks ago the Supreme Court overturned the CEC’s decision to ban her from the elections.  Zoabi has become a symbol of sorts for the Palestinian minority after she was demonized by the Jewish Israeli public for her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2009.  In response to the CEC’s decision to eliminate her from participating in the election, Dr. Jamal Zahalka declared “This [move] hurts the entire Arab public. Its purpose is to weaken the political power of the Arab citizens in the Knesset and to strengthen the Israeli right. We fully support MK Zoabi and all her actions, and we emphasize again that if the Supreme Court does not reverse the decision, Balad will not take part in the coming elections.”

The disqualification of Haneen Zoabi was not the only legal speed bump that Balad had to hurdle in this race.  The week before the election, every party is allotted seven minutes of airtime on each of the three main channels to broadcast campaign advertisements.  These are opportunities to share a party message or just to familiarize the public with new candidates. Balad produced an ad featuring cartoon versions of right wing politicians singing the national anthem “Hatikva” to the tune of an Arab pop song.  The CEC banned this ad and the ad from Michael Ben-Ari’s Strong Israel party that aired with the slogan “not an Arab country, and not a country of infiltrators.” The ruling was overturned after ACRI filed an official appeal on the grounds of free speech.  If anything, the litigation controversy increased the reach of these two divisive ads.

In probably the most interesting political tactic seen in Nazareth this election season, Balad has been using the following advertisements to sway Arab voters who plan to boycott:

The poster reads: ‘Who are you leaving the [Knesset] to?’ and the pictures on the right depict three virulently right wing and racist MKs

The poster reads: ‘Who are you leaving the [Knesset] to?’ and the pictures on the right depict three virulently right wing and racist MKs

The third and final Arab party that is projected to win seats in the Knesset this election is Hadash.  This is a communist party that advocated for Jewish and Arab coexistence.  Their local branch, al-Jabha, is popular in Nazareth municipal politics and they are expected to do well here.  This is the party that was co-founded by Tawfiq Ziad, the Palestinian citizens of Israel who earned fame for his “poetry of protest” and for organizing the first Land Day protests in 1976.  Their party platform includes policy goals such as “achieving a just peace to the Palestinian/Israel conflict”, “protecting workers’ rights”, “eradicating weapons of mass destruction”, and “equality between the sexes”.

Hadash has been criticized for a lack of women at the top of their list.

Hadash has been criticized for a lack of women at the top of their list.

These three parties have joined together to run Facebook campaigns and events in opposition of the boycott. A new Arab party is taking a different approach.  The Hope for Change Party has promised to focus only on domestic issues and has pledged to join any ruling coalition.  They are not projected to win any seats in the Knesset. In a last minute reaction to poor polling data, the Hope for Change Party has pulled out of the election.

One of the few Hope For Change posters to be found around Nazareth.

One of the few Hope For Change posters to be found around Nazareth.

What about the future? 

Those three parties are fairly well established in Nazareth and their roots run deep.  So, this election will not be a revolutionary or game changing opportunity for a new face to make an impression.  Unfortunately, the Palestinian minority faces an increasingly hostile opposition in the Knesset.  Constant threats to ban Arab parties from participating, racist incitement from other MKs, and a deluge of discriminatory legislation all increase the antagonism and apathy felt by Palestinian citizens.  That combined with the divisions within the minority and the constant refusal of Zionist parties to invite Arab parties into their coalitions all contribute to the seemingly implacable status quo and the stagnant struggle for political rights.  The question is, if change won’t come this election, what are the prospects for the future?  In other words, what do young people living in Nazareth think?

Shadi Saleh Mari turned 18 this year.  He was born and raised in Mashhad, a village near Nazareth, and is already an accomplished actor.  He describes a divided youth, “The parties have summer camps for kids.  I went to the tajamu camp when I was younger.  We sang the party songs and made friends.  Now teenagers use more energy on the elections than on policies.  My friends and I went to see mayor Ramiz Jeraisy give a speech on breast cancer awareness.  Mayor Jeraisy is Jabha and my friends are Tajamu.  Before Ramiz even started to speak, my friends were already heckling him. They didn’t care what he had to say because he was from a different party.” The strong relationships and communities that have developed around the different parties reflect the natural internal divisions within the minority and cripple the dream of an impactful unified Arab list.  For this, and other reasons, Shadi is choosing to boycott the election.

One young Nazarene, Maroun Maa’lous, has a different perspective.  He is also 18, so this will be his first election too, but he is happy to vote on Tuesday.  Maroun thinks boycotting is useless, “if you don’t vote, you don’t have any influence.  I think the Israeli government is interested in the non-Jewish citizens votes.  A non-vote is like a vote for who you do not like.  The party I vote for has done a lot. I grant them my vote for their good work.  He plans on voting for Hadash on Tuesday. “Hadash is the only Arab-Jewish party in the Knesset and the best chance for peace.” Specifically, Maroun is happy to espouse the virtues of Dov Khenin, a Jew and the third on Hadash’s list.   “Dr. Hanin, he is a fighter.  He fights for Arab minority rights, for immigrants’ rights, for animals, for the environment.”  Hadash has four seats in the current Knesset, but with the growing percentage of boycotting Arabs, that total could fall.  Dov Khenin’s future lies in the balance.

These two young men present a stark contrast.  It would appear that they represent two poles on the political spectrum.  In reality, these two perspectives lie on the extreme left of Israeli politics.  But, this is the way it works in Nazareth.  The Palestinian minority has its own internal politics and Israel has its national politics; this election is poised to drive a wedge further between them.

* * *

For a deeper analysis of some of the trends discussed here, I encourage you to read this piece from local journalist, Jonathan Cook:

Frank Sinatra’s legacy in Nazareth

This article originally appeared at +972 Magazine on 8/29/2012.  You can see it at its original domain here.

Frank Sinatra meeting with the youth of Israel

What is the connection between Israel’s labor union, Jesus’ childhood home and Ol’ Blue Eyes?

By Paul Karolyi

When Christian tourists come through Nazareth on the half day their guidebooks recommend, they take the suggested walk around the old city, see the Basilica of the Annunciation, stop for ice cream, maybe even visit the Souq.  What they do not see is any mention of their favorite crooner from the 1960s – Frank Sinatra does not regularly come up in conversation. This may not be surprising to them, but it would be to him.

1962 was a very good year for Frank Sinatra. He gave concerts in Hong Kong, Japan, Italy, France, Greece, England and one other country that had always held a special place in his heart: Israel.  The World Tour for Children, which he funded personally, ended up raising over $1 million for children’s charitable causes worldwide. Over $50,000 of that money found its way to Nazareth, and it was only the beginning.

Sinatra’s love for Israel was lifelong; He was known for wearing a miniature mezuzah around his neck in memory of a childhood neighbor. And since Sinatra was a practicing Roman Catholic, his tour of the holy land included many significant Christian sites. He came to Nazareth for a week to see holy Christian sites like Mary’s Well and Joseph’s Workshop on his way to the Sea of Galilee, but he was struck by the people he met living in Nazareth.

Here, Sinatra saw an opportunity where his considerable wealth could make a difference.

In the tour documentary, he specifically mentions his support for the “Israel Histadrut Campaign” which, according to Sinatra, “opens the gates of opportunity for thousand of boys and girls.” He bought a parcel of land near Mary’s Well and tasked the Histadrut (the national Israeli labor union) with building the Frank Sinatra Brotherhood and Friendship Center for Arab and Israeli Children; presumably it would serve to open the gates of opportunity.  He donated the profits from his concerts in Israel to build the center and to encourage inter-cultural exchange between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews.

Unfortunately, all Sinatra donated was money.  He did not help develop or organize any specific organization to bring his vision of cultural exchange into reality. After presiding over the groundbreaking ceremonies of the Center, he moved on from Nazareth. From that point the property fell, in operational capacity, to the Histadrut.  Sinatra returned to Nazareth in 1965, he was shooting a film in Israel with Yul Brenner, to dedicate the Center and donate a further $100,000, the total fee for his appearance.

In the 1960s the Histadrut was a politically controversial organization, only admitting Arabs as members in 1959. Additionally, Arabs who joined were seen as opportunists because they were living under military rule.

In 1962, George Sa’ad was the Nazarene leader of the local Histadrut branch, which meant managing Sinatra’s $150,000 donation. Sa’ad used the money to establish a non-profit organization intended to organize youth groups and solicit donations to sustain the center.  Yet despite his best efforts, there is no clear evidence of any inter-ethnic, inter-faith, or inter-cultural youth groups meeting at the Sinatra Center.

1967 saw another $100,000 donation from Sinatra to the Histadrut.  His announcement of a further contribution to the Sinatra Center in Nazareth was the climax of a formal four-day conference in Miami Beach, Florida.

Ten years after Sinatra’s first trip, the local chapter of the Histadrut began using the Sinatra Center as office space. When I was there, a representative from the Histadrut offices in the Sinatra Center couldn’t provide any records of George Sa’ad’s efforts to host youth group meetings or to establish community outreach groups in the Sinatra Center.

Even Suhail Diab, spokesman for the Nazareth Municipality, could not explain what happened to Sinatra’s original donation; it was exclusively a Histadrut-managed affair and no official government records remain.

In 2000, one woman, Safa Dabour, unwittingly began bringing Frank Sinatra’s vision back to Nazareth.  She did not know about Frank Sinatra and his donation;  he was just a name on a building with a great location. She founded El Sana, an association with a mandate to “find exciting ways to celebrate diversity and build a better, peaceful society.”  Supplying all her own start-up costs, she purchased development rights to one wing of the Frank Sinatra Brotherhood and Friendship Center for Arab and Israeli Children.  She funded the construction of Cinematheque, the only Arab-owned performing arts facility of its kind in Israel. It is a fully functioning movie theater and stage with an accompanying restaurant and bar.

El Sana has organized inter-cultural projects, including a film workshop for Arab and Jewish youth.  In 2004, the Cinematheque was chosen as one of two satellite hosts for the International Student Film Festival in Tel Aviv.  Students came to Nazareth for conferences and exhibitions that promoted the festival’s cross-cultural aspirations. When explaining El Sana’s programming, Safa says, “I wanted to help make peace for Arab and Jewish youth.”

Shahin Shahin volunteers at El Sana.  He defined his role as a “baytenjan”(eggplant), an Arabic aphorism that references the culinary versatility of the vegetable. He does a little bit of everything at the Cinematheque because Safa is his mother.  He said that, “only the sign remains of Frank Sinatra.  When people talk about the building, it is the Histadrut, never the Sinatra Center.”

Since learning of Frank Sinatra’s donation in 1962, Safa has tried to reconnect her advocacy with the Sinatra foundation.  Safa describes El Sana’s current mission as an unintentional realization of Sinatra’s plan. “The Cinematheque became the fulfillment of Frank Sinatra’s mission because Arabs and Jews come to watch movies.”

Safa and her son have been trying to find out what happened to the original donation, but to no avail.  She began soliciting the Sinatra Foundation as well as the Histadrut office which still occupies part of the Sinatra Center, but has no information regarding the center’s history.  In 2006 she sent a letter asking for information regarding the original donation in 1962 and about the possibility of a new donation in Sinatra’s name to El Sana.  She has sent three letters since and has yet to get a reply.

Frank Sinatra probably ought to have demanded more for his money in the first place. In the meantime, El Sana is actively looking for volunteers to help out with a family festival planned for September.

Where Can We Live?

In light of the recent  home destruction in Bir al-Maksour – in which the discriminatory zoning measures applied by the Israeli government make it impossible for the Arab Palestinian minority to have adequate housing – it is necessary to take a deeper look at this complicated issue to help us understand why a citizen of a democratic state has to stand idly while bulldozers roll through his home.  Before analyzing the current status of building codes and municipal zoning regulations, it is important to better understand the legal precedent for the odd arrangement that has arisen.  On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion, as head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared the establishment of Israel.  In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the dual-role of the Jewish people as a religion and a national group was codified into the institutions of the state.  Due to this unique distinction, Israel would become a democracy, ostensibly with protection for the existing Arab inhabitants, and a Jewish state.  However, the codification of Judaism into state institutions has, over time, led to a division in the legal system and the development of apartheid.  In 60 years of struggle with Palestinian nationalism and wars with its Arab neighbors, Israeli leaders have sacrificed the integrity of the Declaration of Independence by forgetting this critical clause:

“In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to return to the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal citizenship and due representation in its bodies and institutions – provisional or permanent.”

That section, which protected the democratic rights of the Arab Palestinian minority, and should have ensured full and equal human rights for all residents of Israel has been ignored.  The allocation of land, specifically municipal zoning regulations, is one major way this difference is displayed.  The Arab Association for Human Rights is headquartered in Nazareth, specifically the Mary’s Well District.  A twenty-minute walk north from Mary’s Well will take you to al-Safafri, a poor, predominantly Muslim neighborhood.  Al-Safafri is about 60 years old and that is not a coincidence.  The families living there descended from people who were forced from there homes in a town called Safuri in 1948.  During the Nakba, Safuri was bombed and the residents either fled from the devastation or were transferred by the nascent Israeli state.  Though the majority now live in al-Safafri, there are descendents of Safuri refugees living in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Safuri was very close to Nazareth, it would be visible to residents of al-Safafri if its buildings stood today.  These people take their evening meals and gaze out their windows at land they used to own.

Roman mosaic in Zippori

Unfortunately, there is little physical evidence of the Arab town Safuri; itself a permutation of what was once Sepphoris, a Roman village.  The town is gone and in its place is Zippori, an Israeli national park, home to “mosaic floors [that] bespeak the opulence of Roman Sepphoris. The relatively small Roman theater is mute evidence of the cultural life the wealth could support.”  That is how Zippori is described in Fodor’s Travel Guide to Israel in which it is a “Fodor’s Choice” destination in the Lower Galilee.  Needless to say, the travel guides do not mention that today’s residents of al-Safafri are legally considered “absentees” and have no right to the land their families used to own.  Fodor’s recognizes Israel’s protection of the Roman mosaics and its defense of historical tradition, but both Fodor’s and Israel ignore the almost 2000 years of Arab history.  Israel has denied the Palestinian Arab minority basic human rights – in this case the right to own land – since its founding, and there is no sign of change in this policy coming. Almost a third of the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel is living in a situation like Roman ruins in Zipporithis one. These people no longer reside in the traditional homes of their ancestors because of the Kafkaesque, and discriminatory, machinations of the Jewish state.  

This brings us back to Nazareth; in 1953 the Israeli government started a program of Judaization in the Galilee.  Essentially, this campaign was to bring a “demographic balance” to the area of Israel with the highest population density of Arab Palestinians, in other words, it incentivized a massive influx of Jewish inhabitation.  Yosef Weitz, an executive at the Jewish National Fund and proponent of the campaign, described the Judaization in terms of quelling “The Arab threat”.  These new, Jewish, cities were planned and built on confiscated land from Arab families: Karmiel, Maalot, and Nazerat Illit. As the following map shows, Nazerat Illit covers far more ground that Nazareth, the designated Arab municipality.

Nazareth and Surrounding Area: The municipal zones are marked (click for larger view)

What the map above does not show is the population changes and the demographic history of these two municipalities. Nazerat Illit has grown as fast as the government can allocate new areas for Jewish emigrants, but Nazareth has had construction stifled.  In the 49 Arab municipalities in Israel, the land that the government’s central planners designate for construction has increased 1.5% while their populations have increased by 600 times. That is the pressure that the Arab Palestinian minority is under and the motive Hassan Gdir had for building his home in Bir al-Maksour without a permit.  He needed the space and the government was not permitting anyone to build residences to accommodate the natural growth in population.

By refusing to permit the expansion of Arab municipal zones, the Israeli government has forced the hands of men like Hassan Gdir and reneged on the promise of “full and equal citizenship and due representation”for the Arab Palestinian minority.  Additionally, the devolution of Safuri village into the al-Safafri neighborhood of Nazareth and Zippori National Park indicates that this discrimination has been going on since the foundation of the state and, as long as the dual Jewish and democratic definition of Israel hold equal status, it will continue into the future. So, in response to the section of the Declaration of Independence quoted above, if the Arab Palestinian minority is to “return to the ways of peace and play their part”, where can they live?

Paul Karolyi is the current intern of the Arab Association for Human Rights.

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HRA Welcomes Corries to Nazareth

Nazareth – The Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA) held an event last Friday night to recognize Rachel Corrie and her family. It was an evening of stirring speeches and emotional tributes to the Corrie family’s ongoing struggle. Last month in a Haifa district court, Judge Oded Gershon denied the Corrie family’s most recent call for justice when, in his verdict, he decided Rachel Corrie was responsible for her own death.  This decision is the most recent event in the ongoing court case over Rachel Corrie’s death at the hands of the Israeli military in Gaza in 2003. Many advocacy groups, including the HRA, have denounced this ruling with a common complaint that it reinforces the “culture of impunity” for discriminatory Israeli institutions and practices.

In their visit to Nazareth, the Corrie family met with local dignitaries, including Mayor Ramiz Jeraisy. Mayor Jeraisy welcomed the Corrie family to the municipality building.  He took the occasion to say a few words to Craig and Cindy Corrie, “someone came to express the struggle against the occupation, and then her death came as a great shock.  It gives huge support for you to continue struggling.”  He continued, “a high price is paid every day, and the highest is the life of the people.”  Craig and Cindy graciously accepted the mayor’s welcome and kind words.  Mr. Corrie described his family’s efforts “when we join your struggle, we join the struggle for human rights everywhere.  We do not support Palestinian rights; we support human rights.  If they are being violated in Palestine, South Africa, or the United States, that is where we all need to defend them.”

Later, the HRA sponsored an evening program of distinguished speakers for a supportive crowd.  The program began with a heartwarming video of a young Rachel Corrie dipping her toes into the pool of international progressive issues and advocating for public health and the safety of the world’s children.  Another video showed an interview Rachel Corrie gave two days before her death.  In it she describes the devastation in Gaza caused by the Israeli occupation and displays compassion for the Gazans she had come to know.  Following the short videos a series of speakers recognized both the Corrie Family and Rachel’s dedication.  Such prominent community leaders as Mohammad Zeidan, head of the High Follow-Up Committee, the head of the Northern District Committee of the Israel Bar Association, Khalid Zoabi, and Ibtissam Mualem, chairperson of the HRA took turns speaking. Hussein Abu Hussein, the Corrie family’s lawyer and a board member of the HRA, described litigation process and the prospects of an appeal.  A feeling of solidarity pervaded the speeches and there was a consistent sense of communal support for both the Corrie family and the cause they have, through their diligent pursuit of justice, come to symbolize.

The HRA was honored to welcome them to Nazareth and will continue to support them personally and through their appeal in the Israeli justice system.

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Palestinian Products Exhibition in Nazareth

This past weekend, from August 31 to September 2, the Souq and Nazerat Illit’s megamalls had some extra competition for business because the Palestinian Products Exhibition was in town.  The Exhibition was held in the Mary’s Well district of Nazareth in the same building as the Golden Crown Hotel.  Over 40 Palestinian-owned and operated companies came to display their wares for the Nazareth business community, but also directly to consumers.  Many sectors of Palestinian industry were represented.  There was a chocolate company, soap makers, candy wholesalers, furniture sellers, and even a brewery.

I wandered through the lobby of the Golden Crown on Monday morning. It was a little before noon and I was hoping to avoid the heaviest hours of foot traffic, but even at that hour, when the bright desert sun was blaring down from its peak, the booths were busy.

Before exploring the two full floors of booths and stalls, I took the opportunity to check out the Exhibition’s promotional materials.  It was no surprise that this ostensibly commercial enterprise had a political undertone.  Each company represented was allotted two pages in hefty booklet.  On which they were profiled briefly, gave contact information, and gave the motive for their participation in Exhibition.  To my eyes, the sight of the Golden Crown lobby filled with bustling crowds of local business owners and consumers made motives apparent, and many of the businesses did indeed describe their presence as an effort to simply “open new markets”.  However, some of these companies see some sort of secondary Palestinian nationalist ambition to their participation.  One company in particular, New Farm Company for Marketing and Agriculture, described their objective as “to market the company’s products in the occupied Palestine 1948.” Describing the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel as “occupied” is an interesting choice for a company looking to build business relations in Israel and turn a profit given how controversial some Israeli would see that claim. But, their boldness expresses the condition of the Palestinians in Israel and no one reading these promotional materials is going to be offended.  Palestinian business can define themselves in solidarity with the Palestinian minority in Israel because of the intense separation between Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Arab communities.  New Farm is not going to lose business.

New Farm is not alone in defining their commercial enterprise in terms of Palestinian solidarity. Many other businesses in attendance described their regional goals with reference to “the green line” and “’48 territories”.  Another attendee, Emirates Delights Company, was motivated to participate by a desire to “enhance the company’s name and display its various luxury products for the Palestinian consumer inside the Green Line.”  Though others alluded to this fact, the premise was clear; these companies from Gaza and the West Bank were producing and marketing goods for primarily Palestinian consumers, be they in Israel or the Occupied Territories.  Even a simple exhibition of consumer products takes on a political purpose in Nazareth; for this one, it was an exhibition not only of Palestinian products, but also of Palestinian nationalism.

I had a great time chatting with some of the vendors and I have to say the stalls filled with chocolate were very tempting.  Here are some photos from the exhibition:

Walking past the Golden Crown Hotel, it was impossible to miss the myriad banners and signs advertising the Exhibition. They did a great job marketing online too.  The Exhibition was sponsored by PalTrade, The Peres Center for Peace, the Nazareth and Galilee Chamber of Commerce, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  It was surprising to me, but Norway is very active in Palestinian development.

Free sample, sir? Yes, please!

I did a double take on this one too. Your eyes are not deceiving you, that is Sonic the Hedgehog being used to sell Palestinian snacks. “These cheese puffs are so edgy and cool!” Can you spot the other classic video game icon in this advertisement?

This is a real salesman at work. Easing the customer in to the purchase with pure positivity; this man walked out of the Exhibition with two big bags of nuts and I’m sure he felt like a champion.

“Delicious AND nutritious, we’ll show you how tonight on Channel 6 News”

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Paul Karolyi the current intern at the Arab Association for Human Rights.

A Tale of Two Cities

“The director of the IDF Planning Department, Yuval Ne’eman, stated that [Nazareth Illit] would “safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole, and… demonstrate state sovereignty to the Arab population more than any other settlement operation.””

Wikipedia, “Nazareth Illit”

When I was first planning my trip to Nazareth I did some basic research on the city’s history and demographic situation.  I understood that the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel lived alongside the Jewish majority, but in only those vague terms.  When people would ask me what I was getting into I was able to tell them a few simple facts to assuage feelings of discomfit they held on behalf of my future. “They have a soccer team there. It is in the 2nd division of the Israeli league.  You know, it’s where Jesus grew up, there’s a big church. The population is about 110,000, and that is made up of Christians, Muslims, Jews.”

Nazareth at sunset

The first two facts are unassailably true.  There is a soccer team that plays here. Their season starts in September and I am looking forward to attending games.  Nazareth is the place where Jesus grew up and the Basilica of the Annunciation dominates the Nazarene skyline.  However, the final fact is a bit more nuanced than I had been expressing.  There are one hundred and ten thousand people in Nazareth. Sort of.  What I did not know is that there are two cities with the name Nazareth.  Nazareth, the first, is the capital city for the Arabs in Israel and is the ancient city where Jesus walked. 60,000 people live here. It has a vibrant city center and many peaceful residential areas.  Natzerat Illit (or Nazareth Illit, “Upper Nazareth”), the second, is very different.  50,000 people live there. This is the city which Yu’val Ne’aman was referring to in the quote above.  The city was founded in the early 1950′s as part of the “Judaization of the Galilee” program.  The Israeli government was trying to maintain the Jewish majority by designating certain land for development by Jewish settlers.  Anyone who has been here can plainly tell you that Nazareth Illit is more than a separate neighborhood.  It is a self-sufficient, separate city all its own.  Where the skyline of Nazareth is a patchwork of minarets, winding roads, and the great Basilica; to look at Nazareth Illit is to gaze upon 20-odd uniformly tall apartment buildings built on a grid.  At sunset the rays of light hit the buildings of Nazareth Illit on the same side as each other.  There is not much variation.  Sunset over the rolling hills of Nazareth is reminiscent of a kaleidoscope.  Rooftop gardens dot the different sizes of buildings and the call to prayer sweeps across the cityscape as the line of night passes each of Nazareth’s mosques.  This is a city with ancient history permeating every block.  This was Mary’s Well, that used to be Joseph’s workshop, the owner of that tourist shop found Roman cisterns in his basement (you can pay ~30 NIS for a tour).

Nazareth Illit was founded by Jewish settlers in order for the new Israeli state to consolidate power over the Galilee region. No one knows exactly when or by whom Nazareth was founded.

Last weekend I took a walk through Nazareth on Saturday when the Souq is bustling.  Then, on Sunday, I took a cab over to Nazareth Illit. This is what I saw:

This one looks familiar, right? Yeah, that’s Nazareth.

These are a couple of shops near the center of Nazareth. It was a hot day and those popsicles were looking pretty tempting.

Looks like somebody beat me to it.

Saturday finds the famous Mahroum’s Sweets packed to the gills. Local pastries, don’t mind if I do.

The cab ride to Nazareth Illit took about ten minutes. Normally I take the bus around Nazareth, but there is no local line that goes to Nazareth Illit on Sundays. These really are two different cities.

This is where the cabbie dropped me off. My first thought: gosh, this looks like suburban Columbus, OH, where I grew up.

Now that is a patriotic car dealership.

It’s hard to believe this suburban sprawl is a short cab ride from Mary’s Well. Time to cue up some Arcade fire on the ol’ iPod.

This is actually an entirely different mall from the one above. This one has a Domino’s Pizza in the food court. Too bad I was full from leftover baklava from Mahroum’s Sweets.

What’s that through the fence? An Arab cemetery. I stood in the exact same place taking this picture and the one directly above it. That cemetery is one barbed wire fence away from the mall’s parking lot.

I did not stay long in Nazareth Illit.  There is probably more to it that what I saw on Sunday and the towering high rises that dominate the view from my apartment’s roof.  Until I find out otherwise, I’m not going back to Nazareth Illit.  Well, I will probably go if I get a hankering for a delicious slice of Domino’s pie, but other than that, probably not.  Okay, maybe I’ll be interested in purchasing some consumer electronics. I would go back to that mall for those.  These cities are so different, and so close.

When I talk to friends back home about living in Israel, I don’t have a scripted response for their questions ready to go.  It is a complicated place. What I can offer them now is a better understanding about what it means when people say “Arab Palestinians and Jews are living side-by-side”.  In the case of Nazareth, as we’ve learned, it means two very different cities, on neighboring hills, sharing a name.

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UPDATE:  Here is an interesting video from local journalist Jonathan Cook in which he discusses the history and present conditions of the relationship between Nazareth and Nazareth Illit.

She is not a soldier

Ten days ago Amane Tatour turned eighteen, but today she is not a soldier. She chose to exercise her exemption from the Civil Service, which means that she will not be joining the Israeli army any time soon.  Amane is a Palestinian Arab living in Israel. That is one of the few groups that are afforded exemptions from the mandatory universal conscription into the Israeli military or the National Service.

By avoiding service she volunteered to pay the Israeli government an additional 12006 NIS in taxes over the course of her lifetime. No one wants higher taxes, but it beats the alternative: implicitly approving the Israeli policy of linking human rights to civic duties.  Unlike religious students, newly married or pregnant women, Palestinian Arabs living in Israel pay an additional 1% tax should they take the exemption option.  The tax is incurred every year the subject is of an eligible to serve.  That makes 23 years of paying for the privilege of not serving.  The revenue gained from the 1% tax goes towards the funding of benefits programs for veterans of military service.  Veterans receive one free year of tuition at designated universities and other similar rewards.

Of course, there are options inherent in the service; not every eighteen-year-old will be trained to shoot a machine gun.  The National Service is another choice.  This alternate program offers various nation building and public works-type jobs to the pacifist segment of Israel’s youth.  The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren recently published an article exploring the National Service option specifically in the Galilee area of Israel.  So why isn’t Amane in uniform right now?

On her Myspace page she identifies her hometown as “Nazareth, Palestine NOT IL”.  In principle, Amane and her peers refuse to serve in the same branch of government, the Defense Ministry, that operates the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.  The decision not to serve is also an expression of outrage over the relationship the Israeli government has assigned to “rights” and “duties”. Regardless of the ostensibly conciliatory National Service option, the concept of rewarding the performance of a civic duty with internationally acknowledged inherent human rights is unsanctionable.

Amane performing at Cinematech. She shows the audience that she “is not a soldier”

The immanent success in Amane’s future is apparent to everyone she meets.  This is a young woman with creative prowess and a lust for life.  In her summer away from school she is writing and directing a film with help from one local NGO and focusing more on her burgeoning rap career.  For the last four years she has been a youth facilitator and a leader in the Arab Association for Human Rights’ Haq youth group.  As one half of rap duo “Dmar” (Arabic for destruction), she has the stage presence of a seasoned professional performer and the charisma of a star in the making.  Amane and her partner, Mai Zarqawi, formed the band in 2005 when they were both under the age of 15. This video of a performance Dmar gave in June 2009 currently has 5,693 hits.  That means that roughly one in ten people in Nazareth have seen it. Committing to Civil Service would rob her of some very formative years, and it should not be required of her in exchange for basic human rights.

Being from a small village north of Nazareth, the Arab capital of Israel, Amane has grown up around people who have reason to harbor ill will towards the Israeli government.  The issue of national loyalty is tricky in Nazareth.  Her struggle is indicative of the difficulty many of her peers are having with this decision.  Choose the attractive benefits package and a brief service or a tax penalty and freedom? On one hand, doing the National Service can be a good way to help out the community. One such program is the Nazareth Summer Camp. It is staffed by servicemen and women, and services the kids of Nazareth. On the other hand, committing to National Service could be seen as a betrayal of national identity. These people are indigenous to the land.  This is Palestinian Arab minority of Israel; it is absurd to ask them to serve in the same army that oppresses their uncles, aunts, sisters, and brothers in the West Bank and Gaza. So, in a town like Nazareth where politics and history is everything, Amane’s choice was easy.  There was no conceivable way she could commit to serve.

Last week the Arab Association for Human Rights co-sponsored an evening of music, poetry, and dance to bring awareness to the effects of the Isreali conscription laws. The other sponsors were Baladna, the Initiative for Arab Youth Action, and Women Against Violence.  “I am not a soldier” the theme for the evening permeated every performance.  Though the content was generally political, the tone was light.  One firebrand speaker called for an end of Israeli oppression; he was followed by a guitar player eager to crack jokes between songs. The show climaxed with a moving performance of the Palestinian national anthem by the Haq Orchestra for Art; a group the HRA-sponsors. The audience showed up to have a nice night out and to display solidarity. They got to do both.  This was a public outcry for the end of such a repugnant policy and quite the occasion for Nazarene socialites.  250-odd people were in attendance for the event. As the crowd shuffled out of Cinematech near Mary’s Well in ancient Nazareth, there were many glowing smiles displaying the strong sense of community which really was the star of the show.

Two Nazarene youth prepare for their performance

A community united against this oppressive policy last night, but their message was overshadowed by national political news.  It was announced last week that Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party would be leaving the ruling coalition after only 70 days.  The division was apparently caused by intractable differences on the issue of universal conscription.  Mofaz’s secular Kadima wants to end the exemption for ultra-orthodox religious students. Benjamin Netanyahu, PM and head of Likud, decided instead to honor his commitment to the orthodox, religious parties in his coalition, who support the exemption for religious students. There was no mainstream political party advocating an end to the 1% tax penalty for Palestinian Arabs living in Israel who seek exemption. There were, however, many conservative politicians calling for an end to the Arab exemption option in the first place.  Mainstream Israeli politics are one standard deviation away from the Arab public’s desires on the spectrum of opinions on this issue.  In Nazareth, life goes on. The rewards for serving look more and more attractive to eighteen-year old Palestinian Arabs. But, understanding that in order to receive them they must tangentially approve an unlawful and immoral policy happens to be a powerful motivator as well.

For these reasons the Arab Association for Human Rights seeks your support. Help us reach out to young people like Amane. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, read our new Intern Blog to keep track of future events like this one!

5 Reasons Why You Should Intern at the HRA

The following was originally posted in 2011

Upon landing in this city, the capricious weather that changes every 20 minutes welcomed me with a sun shower. As I walk on Al Bishara street, a party of tourists are absorbed in taking pictures of holy sites, while local kids warmly greet me in Arabic, “Nee hao, Jakkee shen

Yes, I came to Nazareth! More precisely, at the Arab Association for Human Rights (HRA), 200 m from Mary’s Well, 8681.68 km from Kawasaki, Japan (where I was born). Today, I will give you an insider scoop on what it’s like to work at the HRA, which doesn’t appear on the job description of our main website.

5 Benefits of joining the HRA team

1. Experience, experience, experience!

Interns assist the HRA’s work on development, international advocacy, and research and reporting. From Monday to Friday, 8:00 – 16:00, interns sit in the office and write documents, grant proposals, statements or press releases in English. Occasionally, we get to participate in human rights events organized by the Association such as the Evening Against Violence, and Civil Service in Israel.

Furthermore, the HRA is willing to implement interns’ new ideas. For example, Ryan (the other intern) and I proposed to conduct research on segregated Israeli education system. To add personal stories to available statistical research on education disparities among Israeli citizens (e.g., between Palestinian and Jewish populations), we will interview education experts, teachers, parents and students from both sectors. In addition to the analysis of current disparities between Arab and Jewish schools, we will also evaluate two different alternatives to the current education system: bi-national-bi-lingual approach and autonomous education system for the Arab population.

2. Explore Israel/Palestine

We take advantage of our weekends and travel all corners of Israel/Palestine. Examples include- visiting the Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron (TIPH) who briefed us on Hebron’s tense situation; gazing at a beautiful forest at Nahal HaShofet (Wadi Tawahin) National Park; dressing up as Little Red Riding Hood at a Purim party in a small Kibbutz in Kinneret. People places and things here are mind-blowing in many ways.

Nahal HaShofet (Wadi Tawahin) National Park

3. Learn Arabic and Hebrew

By participating in various HRA’s events, speaking with the students that regularly come to the association and interacting with the people of Nazareth and Israel/Palestine, we naturally learn Arabic and Hebrew. Although our working language is English, we use Arabic after work, and Hebrew when we travel in Israel/Palestine. With a bit of effort we can be fluent in both languages after a period of 6 months!

4. Our Castle

The Association provides its interns with enormous, fully furnished apartment with HIGH-SPEED INTERNET!

Why are they so generous? Because it is an organization that combats discrimination and inequality. The partially paid internship intends to reduce unequal opportunities between interns from the industrialized countries and the Third World countries.

5. Children’s smiles

Working at the HRA provides opportunities to be inspired by our students and their smiles. After all, our work is all about trying our best to ensure equal opportunities and rights, defending their smiles and dreams for a better future.

Currently, we are accepting applications! Click Here to learn more

Please send your cover letter and CV to