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Israeli-Arabs take anger to ballot box

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Nazareth

Dokhol Safadi, restaurant owner, Nazareth
Dokhol Safadi says many Jewish customers were afraid to visit

It seems everyone on the chaotic, slightly scruffy streets of the Israeli-Arab town of Nazareth is still seething about Israel's operation in Gaza.

"Nobody agreed to this massacre," says gently-spoken restauranteur Dokhol Safadi, 41, who swears by a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemns rocket fire against southern Israel.

Until 27 December, Jewish customers came from "all over Israel" to sample his chefs' renowned Arab cuisine.

But most of them stopped visiting as the fighting in Gaza put relations between the Arab fifth of Israel's population and the Jewish majority under severe strain.

And now projected gains for the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of 10 February elections are ratcheting up tensions further.

Ahab Issa
It's not sympathy for Hamas, it's about who's being killed - if you say someone's killing, but you're also killing - then who's the killer?
Ahab Issa
Snack bar manager

The party, popular with immigrants from former-Soviet countries, calls for the transfer of Israeli-Arab areas to the control of the Palestinian Authority, and a citizenship law demanding all citizens pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state.

The party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman was a key player in a vitriolic war of words with Israeli-Arab politicians who protested against the Israeli operation in Gaza.

Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi accused the government of genocide and said every vote for outgoing PM Ehud Olmert's Kadima party was "a bullet in the chest of a Palestinian child", according to Israeli media reports.

In return, Mr Lieberman called him a terrorist and said some Arab MKs should be dealt with as Israel dealt with Hamas. The right-wing leader also pushed for a ban on the participation of two Israeli-Arab parties in the polls - which was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

'Criminal'

Israeli Arabs are people of Palestinian origin whose families remained in what is now Israel after the state was created in 1948.

They have the full rights of Israeli citizens, although discrimination has been widely documented.

Analysts expect them to express their anger at the ballot box in two ways.

Some, like Elham Abu Ahmad, 40, will abandon Israeli parties.

Tucking into sticky orange sweets at a cafe in Nazareth's main streets, she says she is angry with herself for backing Labour leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak last time.

"He is a criminal. I wish he would die," she says of the man who played a major role in the launch of the Gaza operation, adding that she plans to vote for an Israeli-Arab party instead.

Protest against Gaza operation in Nazareth, 27.12.09
Israeli-Arabs protested in Nazareth against the operation in Gaza

Others will boycott the vote altogether, like Ahab Ody, 21, who works in construction.

"Nobody deserves a vote. Nothing improved and the war affected me. I feel like it doesn't change anything if I vote."

Israeli-Arab participation in elections, about 70% during the 1990s, plummeted to 18% in 2001 in protest at Israel's response to the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000.

Turn-out has not fully recovered - in 2003 it was 62%, falling to 56% in 2006.

Analysts blame frustration with both the divisions between the Israeli-Arab parties and the lack of influence they have in the Israeli Knesset, where Israeli-Arab parties are rarely involved in the power play of the coalition-based political system.

The other factor this time is Mr Lieberman, whose party may even beat Labour into third place on the back of a general swing to the right among Israeli voters enthusiastic about the Gaza operation.

Anat Tolnai, 40 and Ihsan Ka'biya, 35, a Jewish-Arab couple, see his popularity as linked to what Israeli-Arab organisations say is a growth in racist attitudes.

"'Kill the Arabs' used to be a phrase used only on the extreme right - now people say it much more," says Ms Tolnai.

The couple are planning to vote for the mainly Arab party Hadash, after the left-wing Israeli party Meretz that they usually support backed the Gaza operation.

Mr Ka'biya said he had planned not to vote, but Ms Tolnai "convinced me that if we don't vote, we are supporting Lieberman".

Loyalty call

A short drive away, amid the neatly landscaped verges of Nazareth-Illit - a mainly Jewish nearby town, Yisraeli Beiteinu's local office is in a small, dim room above a row of shops with signs in Russian.

Alex Gadalkin, leading the local campaign, sits below a poster declaring "no loyalty, no citizenship".

"We don't hate the Arabs," he says, repeatedly, when asked about the party's controversial policies.

Alex Gadalkin, Yisrael Beiteinu, Nazareth
'No loyalty, no citizenship' is one of Yisrael Beiteinu's slogans

"We want them to serve the country like the country serves them," he says, "they get a lot of things, we just want them to give something".

But the question of Israeli-Arab opposition to the war remains thorny.

"To say the war is wrong is freedom of speech, but to oppose the army, or the citizens of the south who suffer from rocket attacks, that's not OK," he says.

"To raise the Palestinian flag or sing the songs of Hamas, is not OK," chips in another party activist.

"They want us to be silent or to agree with them," says Israeli-Arab MK Ahmad Tibi.

He says he is opposed to rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians, but "no one can accept the formula that the reaction to a panic attack in Sderot should be a river of blood in Gaza".

Delicate line

There has long been fear among Israelis that the Israeli-Arab population in their midst is a fifth column, ready to support Palestinian attacks on Israel.

But Israeli Arabs tread a delicate line, fearful of losing the rights and economic opportunities they enjoy as Israeli citizens.

Pressed repeatedly on whether he supports any kind of attack on the Israeli military, Mr Tibi says: "I prefer the negotiating table - but if Israelis are killing Palestinians, then Palestinians are saying 'we are defending ourselves'."

And on the streets of Nazareth, few will give a straight answer on whether they have sympathy with Hamas.

"It's not sympathy for Hamas, it's about who's being killed - if you say someone's killing, but you're also killing - then who's the killer? Nobody's better than the other," says snack bar manager Ahab Issa, 28.

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