October 6, 2023

The 2023 Municipal Elections in Arab and Mixed Localities

This post was published before the events of October 07 and the ensuing war. The 2023 local elections had been postponed twice, and then took place in February, 2024. For the updated publication, see here.

Umm Al Fahem Background. Elections graphic

Municipal elections are set to be held in Israel on October 31, 2023. These elections, held every five years, determine mayors and heads of local and regional councils, as well as city and local council representatives. In a year marked by unprecedented political turmoil, many municipal elections in Israel are expected to play out as a referendum on government actions and polarization. While in some Arab communities and mixed cities in Israel, mixed Jewish-Arab lists and visionary candidates are part of this energetic response, for most Arab citizens, local elections are unusually dormant this year, marred by historically high levels of violent and organized crime.

“This year there is hardly any interest in the elections,” remarks Professor Khaled Abu Asbah, a sociologist and planning expert from Jat village in the Triangle. “There are almost no headquarters, propaganda, conferences. There are no new candidates. People see that the authorities have no influence on this government – and the violence completely paralyzes us.”

In Arab communities, local elections usually garner very high voter turnout, consistently ranging between 85-90 percent, and draw high numbers of candidates. Historically, with high levels of poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and a weak civil sector, local politics has often been “the sole organizational framework and channel to advance political, social, and economic development” and serves as the most prominent and accessible layer of government, services and resources, for most Arab citizens. In recent years, as government budgets for Arab socio-economic development grew, so have efforts to attract mission-driven candidates who would be capable of managing development budgets and projects for their towns.

This year municipal elections in Arab communities are unfolding against a backdrop of surging violent and organized crime in Arab society. Numerous candidates have faced threats and acts of violence, including extortion and attempts on their lives. In recent years, as criminal organizations’ activities in Arab communities expanded, more have targeted municipal authorities as vehicles for their interests, seeking control over governmental tenders and resources.



Crime Protest in Haifa. Bokra.Net

Photo: March of the Dead. Haifa. 2023. Credit: Bokra.Net

Ayman Saif, founding director of the government’s Authority for Economic Development for Arab society, warns that “crime deters good candidates from running in the elections.” At the same time, he adds, “criminal organizations will make an effort to support candidates associated with them, which is a grave concern.” Recent incidents, writes Afif Abu Much, include:

“Abdel RahmanKashua, the director general of the central Arab Israeli town of Tira, andAbu Snan GhaziSaab, whoran for a seat on the Tira council, both murdered in August.In the nearby town of Taibeh, shots fired at the home of Mayor Shua’a Mansur in April killed a security guard, Adir Vahib Ghanem.A week ago, shots were fired atthe home and car of Afif al-Haj, who is running forthe leadership of the lower Galilee village of Jadeidi-Makr.In the nearby village of Kfar Yasif,Helal Khoury dropped out of the race for local council leaderafter receiving death threats and having shots fired at his home. Earlier this month, Mus’abDukhan, a mayoral candidate in Israel’s largest Arab city of Nazareth, announced he was dropping out of the race after being wounded in a shooting at his home and him and his family receiving threats.” 

The stakeholders in the field report that the involvement of organized crime in local elections undermines the democratic voting process, depriving residents of their right to choose their representatives and fosters a sense of alienation and reduced community involvement. Ultimately, this diminishes residents’ contributions to their communities and leaves an entire generation feeling disengaged and devoid of leadership and purpose.

Both the Shin Bet and the police are closely monitoring the elections, flagging 15-20 localities where organized crime is posing a threat. The government has allocated resources to ensure the safety of elected officials and candidates, and police are committing resources to ensure a secure elections day.

If good candidates don’t run in the elections to begin with and are replaced by less good people, who may be affiliated with a criminal organization, it will be a disaster for Arab society,” says Ayman Saif. He believes the crime surge requires “convening a dedicated ministerial committee frequently, with an organized work plan with a project director who will work on it 24 hours, seven day a week with allocation of resources.”


Prospects for Economic Development 

While the impact of crime and insecurity has cast a shadow on municipal elections and Arab society  locally, it has also spurred recurring attempts by the national government to revoke budgets designated for Arab local authorities, citing the risk of reaching criminal organizations. Director General of the Council of Heads of Arab Authorities, Amir Basharat warns that “the failure to transfer the money is an interference in the municipal elections. Some authorities will not pay salaries and basic services such as garbage disposal will be affected. The residents will not vote for these authorities.”

Such threats also weaken efforts to promote professional candidates whose promises revolve around bringing economic growth and opportunities to the entire communities. “It seems that the paralysis and despair in Arab society actually strengthen family control over local government,” explains journalist Maqbula Nassar, a reality that used to predominate to in Arab communities. This, in turn, “encourages corruption and poor management, as the elections revolve around favors and work arrangements for the candidate’s family.”



“Unfortunately, the current violent reality reinforces this destructive mechanism,” Nassar continues, pointing to the near absence of Arab women running. “Women are always pushed aside, and now, when the atmosphere is violent, they are pushed even more. In 2013, 14 women were elected to all the (Arab) councils together. In 2018, their number jumped to 27. Today there are not 27 nominations in the whole country.”

“Your Voice is Power” is a coalition of women’s and rights-based organizations focused on promoting women’s representation, rights, and issues, particularly in elections and local governance. Launched in 2018, they continue to advocate for increased participation of women in local councils and municipalities, to be part of decision-making processes within their communities. This year, the coalition runs a social media campaign and conducts media training workshops for female candidates and activists.

Video: The clinic on the other side of the town? Where is the public transportation! In the upcoming elections, vote for lists that include women and prioritize women’s issues! 2023. Credit: Your Voice is Power.

Kayan Feminist Organization recently held a conference in Nazareth on Electoral Culture in Arab society, featuring influential women examining Arab local authority elections and their impact on women’s rights. In the opening speech, Rania Darawsheh Keelny, an activist at “Women Leaders of Yafa an-Naseriyye”, called for a protest vote with blank ballots to highlight Arab women’s political marginalization. Rafah Anabtawi, director of Kayan, called for immediate action and unity within Arab communities to address the prevailing unfavorable reality with the current government.

“The candidates lists are currently under formation, and at this stage, we have 15 candidates,” reports Nadira Abu Dubey Saadi, who coordinates the political representation of Arab women within political parties at the Women Against Violence Association.


Mixed Cities 

In mixed cities, where Jewish and Arab residents live in closest proximity, local politics wield significant influence on intergroup relations. The mayor, city council, and coalition members determine how resources will be distributed and invested, as well as local policies, and set the tone for Jewish-Arab relations. Increasing Arab representation on mixed city local councils has long been recognized as a keyway of ensuring that that the communities’ needs are adequately addressed, fostering trust, and working towards a shared city. Yet, Arab representation in political and professional roles in these municipalities is notably low.

In the lead up to local elections, mixed cities have seen an intense and divisive struggle for control of local authorities. Extreme right-wing campaigns, fueled by inciteful anti-Arab rhetoric, stand in contrast with joint Arab and Jewish-Arab lists advocating for a shared future.

Since the violent clashes of May 2021 between Arab and Jewish citizens, intercommunal relations remain tense. Extreme right-wing groups, whose influence has grown in mixed cities, have exploited lingering fears in mixed cities, framing Arab communities as occupiers and an enemy within, and opposing Jewish-Arab partnerships.

In response to these challenges, political parties and civil society efforts have emerged, in support of Arab candidates, the creation of united Arab lists, and collaborative Jewish-Arab partnerships for local councils. The joint Arab lists are a way of leveraging its power in the local elections. In Acre, Lod and Nof HaGalil, unite lists bring together candidates from political parties like Hadash and Balad, alongside and independents. According to Rim Hazan, the Secretary of Hadash, the Arab-Jewish political party, “joining forces is necessary in the shadow of the extremist government that sees Arab citizens as enemies, especially in the mixed cities and Haifa with its special fabric of relations between the two peoples.” The time has come, she continues, for Arab votes not to be wasted but to “represent the aspirations of the Arab public in the areas of education, development, urban renewal, equality and distributive justice in municipal resources, and more.”

In Jaffa, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva, there are Jewish-Arab lists that put the embody the need for political partnership in cities with significant Arab populations. In Jaffa, “Kulanu HaIr” [We All are the City] runs is headed by Att. Amir Badran along with Shula Keshet. Badran will also be the mayoral candidate for the list. “This is the first time in 75 years that an Arab candidate is running to be a mayor,” says Badran. “It’s a Jewish-Arab list representing various groups in Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The candidate in the eighth position is a young asylum seeker who arrived from Darfur. We invited all the political forces to join.”

Jaffa Eviction Protest Organized by the Joint List Kulani Hayir
Poster: Kulanu HaYir Campaign Against Evictions in Jaffa. 2023. Credit: Kulanu HaYir.

In Haifa, “Rov Ha’ir” [the Majority of the City] is a Jewish-Arab list headed by Sally Abed, also of Omdim Be’yachad. “Shutafut” [Partnership] list in Beer Sheva, headed by att. Shehada Aben Barri, is a first Arab-Jewish partnership running in the Beer Sheva city council, the authority that serves to the whole Arab population in the Negev. The Shutafut list seeks to empower residents to make decisions in urban planning, addressing the issue of neglected public spaces and climate crisis and expanding bilingual education. Aben Barri hopes “that eventually people will realize that the separation between Jews and Arabs has existed for 70 years, and it’s time to try something else.”

Behind the creation of such lists are the efforts of organizations like Omdim B’yachad, Tsedek Centers, The Abraham Initiatives and others that encourage the community to demand lists that represent their interests and encourages residents to engage in local elections and to use their vote. For instance, the Abraham Initiatives launched a national campaign called “My Vote Decides – My City Counts.” This campaign aims to encourage residents of mixed cities to demand that political parties address the unique character of mixed cities and present plans for shared society and prioritize equality.

Video: “My Vote Decides – My City Counts” Campaign. 2023. Credit: The Abraham Initiatives.

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How Can We Help?

Do you need support integrating these resources and issues into your philanthropic, communal, or Israel education work? Reach out for consultations, connections to experts, program support, training, or to plan your next event or mission. If you’ve used our resources, tell us about your experience!

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