Arabs scornful of Sharon

JERUSALEM, Feb. 6 (JTA) – Wisam Jamal stood defiantly at the entrance to the family bakery in Wadi Nisnas, the Arab neighborhood of downtown Haifa.

“I do not intend to waste any gasoline driving to the polling station,” he said.

Jamal was not alone in deciding to boycott Tuesday’s election for prime minister.

Only some 13 percent of Israeli Arabs went to the polls, and many of them cast blank ballots to underscore their dissatisfaction with both candidates.

A few Arab Knesset members urged voters to go to the polls to cast white protest ballots. More effective, however, were the multiple calls to boycott the elections – backed up with threats against those who voted.

On election day, a convoy of cars bearing black flags and Palestinian flags, calling for a boycott and protesting the killing of 13 Israeli Arabs by police during pro-Palestinian riots last October, made its way through a predominantly Arab area in the lower Galilee.

At some polling stations, members of the Israeli Arab community – looking intimidating – formed patrols to enforce the boycott.

Israeli Arabs make up about 12 percent of the voting public, and they overwhelmingly supported Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the last election.

Their boycott this time was a major factor in Barak’s crushing loss to Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

In the waning days of the campaign, as one poll after another predicted his defeat, Barak knew the Arab vote was crucial.

On Sunday, he apologized for the deaths of the 13 Israeli Arabs.

“In my name and in the name of the government, I express sorrow over the death of Arab citizens,” Barak said Sunday, in what was widely viewed as an appeal for Israeli Arab votes. “As prime minister, I hold general responsibility for everything that happens in the country during my term, and also for these incidents.”

This was the same man who ignored Arab Knesset members when forming his governing coalition in the summer of 1999, not even giving them a courtesy call.

On Tuesday, Barak again issued an apology, this time during an interview on al-Jazeera, a satellite station popular with the Arab community.

In an indication of how desperately he needed the Arab vote, Barak gave the interview despite an Israeli law that bans campaigning on election day.

The Israeli Arabs’ boycott reflected dissatisfaction on a number of issues, including the long-standing feeling that they suffer discrimination in receiving government services and civil service jobs.

But the boycott also carried a message of indifference, even defiance, toward both candidates.

“They don’t care much for the Arab anyway, so let the Jews fight it out among themselves,” said Nilli Barmaki of the Arab village of Mazra’a.

Israeli Arabs claimed not to see much difference between Sharon and Barak. A similar message came in recent days from Arab capitals.

Shaqib abu-Jabal, a former member of Syria’s Parliament, was quoted on Israel’s Army Radio as saying that Syria considered the two candidates equally unacceptable.

But, abu-Jabal added, there is a silver lining to Sharon’s victory, because it will push the Arab world toward greater unity.

For his part, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat sounded a conciliatory note after the election results became clear.

“We respect the decision of the Israeli people,” Arafat told Reuters. “We hope the peace process will continue.”

But Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo called the election of Sharon the most “foolish event” in Israeli history.

Despite Sharon’s efforts during the election campaign to present himself as a moderate, the Arab world remembers the role he has played in the Israeli-Arab conflict, particularly as defense minister in the 1982 Lebanon war.

An Israeli government commission found Sharon indirectly responsible for the September 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

Some Arab analysts say Arafat actually wanted a Sharon victory – because the widespread perception of Sharon as a hard-liner is likely to increase international sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

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