Arab votes in Israel may have noticed an unusual sight during Tuesday’s elections: Jews from Samaria (Shomron), in the heart of Arab towns and cities often seen as hostile.
The surprise guests were in dozens of Arab communities as observers, taking over from Israeli political parties that feared to send their own representatives.
Elections are often accompanied by reports of attempted fraud, with a disproportionate number of incidents in Arab towns and cities. The problem is thought to be linked to the presence or absence of observers: Israeli parties have the right to station observers in polling stations, with the hope that representatives from rival parties will ensure each others’ honesty, but many representatives of non-Arab parties have declined to observe voting in Arab towns due to safety concerns.
This year the Samaria Residents’ Council decided to take over the task, appointing its own observers, who took the mandates that larger parties did not want.
“The representatives from the Jewish parties were afraid to go in as polling station representatives at the Arab voting stations because of the violence,” explained Sagi Keizler of the Samaria Residents Council. “So the situation was that most of the representatives, if not all, were from the Arab parties – which allowed them to twist the results, or even increase the number of ‘voters’ at that station.”
The Samaria Residents Council sent its own representatives in the last elections, in 2009, with dramatic results. “In the town of Turan there were two polling stations next to each other, in the same school. In the station where our observer was, there was less than 30% turnout, while in the one next door, where there was no Jewish representative, reported turnout was 97%,” Keizler related.
The Jewish observers’ goal is not to cause conflict, he emphasized. “We didn’t come to fight or to argue, but to protect the integrity” of the elections, he said.
So far in 2013, observers have noted at least two irregularities, he said. In Nazareth, a Samaria observer reported that the head of one polling station, together with local representatives, attempted to pay him to leave the station before votes were counted.
In Kfar Kana, a local man asked to cast two votes, saying that one was for his wife, who he said is disabled and cannot reach the station. An observer from Samaria told the man that he cannot vote on his wife’s behalf, and directed him instead to a mobile polling station providing access to disabled voters.
The observer said he was then threatened by an Arab representative at the station, who told him, “Be careful, you’re in an Arab town.” The head of the polling station then overruled the observer and allowed the man to vote for his wife as well as himself.
Beyond the value of reporting such incidents, the observers are able to maintain order with their mere presence, Keizler said. The presence of an observer from a rival political party “causes the local officials to abide by the rules,” he explained.
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