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Arabs voting turnout { January 28 2003 }

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Arabs Turn Out in Large Numbers for Israeli Elections
Tuesday, January 28, 2003

ABU GHOSH, Israel Israeli Arabs, who boycotted an election for prime minister two years ago, appeared to be turning out in large numbers at polling stations Tuesday, mostly supporting Arab parties to represent them in parliament.

Jafar Farrah, director of the Mossawa Center, an Arab research group, estimated by calling polling stations that about 65 percent of eligible Arab voters would participate Tuesday. There are about 550,000 eligible Arab voters.

That turnout probably would be below the national average but well above the 17 percent of Arab voters who participated in the February 2001 election for prime minister.

"We're voting today to show we belong here and are never going to leave this country," said Suleyman Abu Ghosh, 26, a resident in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Arab voters were expected to account for about 12 percent of the overall vote, and Arab parties were expected to get around nine seats in the 120-seat parliament, according to the Mossawa Center.

The 2001 boycott stemmed from several factors, including widespread anger with then-incumbent Ehud Barak, who was blamed widely for the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs, killed by police during protests at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising just a few months earlier.

The only other candidate in that ballot was Ariel Sharon, who was reviled widely throughout the Arab world. Also, since no parliamentary seats were at stake, there were no Arab parties to vote for.

The boycott raised questions about the extent to which Israeli Arabs were feeling alienated from the country's Jewish majority.

Israeli Arabs, who account for 1.2 million of Israel's 6.6 million citizens, are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and have often complained about discriminatory treatment by Israeli governments.

But Israeli Arabs traditionally have participated in Israeli politics and, with rare exceptions, are not involved in political violence.

The vast majority of Arab voters chose one of three Arab parties or a joint Arab-Jewish party. Some voted for Jewish-dominated parties, such as the dovish Labor Party, and a few even acknowledged choosing an ultra-Orthodox religious party, Shas.

"This is the third time I've voted for Shas," said Nasser Abu Ghosh, a member of the same extended family as Suleyman Abu Ghosh.

The party has controlled Israel's Interior Ministry in recent years, and Nasser Abu Ghosh cited the group for bringing development money to the village.

"I have to vote for whoever works for my village."

A month ago, it appeared another boycott might take hold after two leading Arab politicians, Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi, were taken off the ballot by the Central Election Committee for allegedly showing support for Israel's Arab enemies.

The decision was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, and the boycott threat faded.

Israeli authorities "put so much pressure on [Bishara] that I'm going to vote for him, if only as a protest," said Hamzeh Abdul Rahman, 26.

"Azmi might not represent me well in [parliament], but he shook a lot of people into taking action."

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