Gearing up for the Elections in a Political Town: Kafr Qassem a Test Case

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Arab Israelis want to see their representatives in the Knesset and are willing to go out to vote to ensure this happens. Kafr Qassem could be the test case for the larger Arab community who are more likely to vote if they feel that their Knesset members are representing them faithfully.

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Kafr Qassem is an Arab town on the southern edge of the Triangle region, an area annexed by Israel in 1949 under the Rhodes Armistice Agreement. Today, the town has a population of 24,000.

Kafr Qassem's history in the early days of the State is traumatic. On October 29, 1956, while Israeli Arab localities were under military rule, soldiers of a Border Police unit killed 49 residents of the town who were returning home from working their fields after a curfew, unaware that such a curfew had been imposed. The massacre has become a national milestone not only for the town itself, but also for the entire Arab sector in Israel. Kafr Qassem came to be known as Balad a-Shuhada, “the town of martyrs.” The commemoration of the event is part of the local landscape. Everyone who enters the town, including the many Jews who frequent its shopping centers, passes through its central square, Maidan a-Shuhada, “Martyrs’ Square.” An inverted black obelisk dominates the square, with the date 1956 at the top, above a ring of stones bearing the names of the victims of that bloody day.

If anyone thought that after this traumatic history the people of Kafr Qassem would retire into their homes, seclude themselves, and have nothing to do with national politics—the exact opposite is the case. The residents say that it is precisely the traumatic memory of the 1956 massacre which motivates them to step up their political involvement, in order to fight against racism and improve relations between Arabs and Jews in the country, paving their way early on, to become active in political parties, both Arab and Jewish, and to turn out en masse for Knesset elections.

Kafr Qassem is indeed one of the most politically oriented localities in the Arab sector; there are several indicators of this. It is the cradle of the Islamic Movement, established in the 1970s by a local resident, the late Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, which cleverly combined social action with political activity. In the late 1980s, it registered a huge success in Arab local council elections; in 1996, it fielded candidates for the Knesset for the first time, as part of the United Arab List (UAL). The list’s candidates are chosen by the movement’s Shura Council. Today the head of the UAL is MK Mansour Abbas.

Over the years and in several rounds of elections, the town has almost always had a native son sitting in the Knesset as a representative of the Islamic Movement. Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, the head of the Islamic Movement from 1998 to 2010, served in the Knesset for a decade (2006–2015). Today the Islamic Movement’s representative in the Knesset is Walid Taha, who is number two on the UAL list.

But the Islamic Movement isn’t the only group with strong support in Kafr Qassem. There is also the [Jewish left-wing] Meretz party: one of its prominent members, Issawi Frej, served in the Knesset from 2013 to 2019. In recent years, in fact, Kafr Qassem has become one of Meretz’s bastions in the Arab sector. In the 2013 Knesset elections, the party garnered 3,254 votes —only slightly less than the total for the joint list of the UAL, Ahmad Tibi’s Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al), and Taleb a-Sanaa’s Arab Democratic Party (Mada). In the elections for the 21st Knesset (April 2019), Meretz won 3,623 votes and led the race in Kafr Qassem, outpolling the two Arab lists—UAL-Balad (3,057) and Hadash-Ta’al (2,238).

But the most prominent indicator of Kafr Qassem’s identity and character as a political town, is that in recent years the turnout on Election Day has outstripped the average for the overall Arab population. In April 2019, when Arab turnout sank to a record low (49.2%), in Kafr Qassem a respectable 64.6% voted. In the most recent elections (March 2020), when Arab turnout was the highest in the last two decades (64.8%), the figure for Kafr Qassem was 73.9%. This was even higher than the overall average for the Triangle region (68.0%), where the residents turned out en masse in reaction to the "Deal of the Century" proposal which might have annexed the region to the Palestinian state in the future.

It is unusual to find an Arab locality that almost always has a representative in the Knesset, and here too Kafr Qassem stands out. In 2013, two of its residents were elected to the Knesset: Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, who ran at the head of the joint UAL-Ta’al-Mada list, and Issawi Frej of Meretz. In the other elections of the last decade, there was always at least one resident of the town in the Knesset. Kafr Qassem is therefore the political beating heart of the Triangle.

But even a town with such strong political awareness is not immune to the uncertainty surrounding the Joint List ahead of the upcoming elections on March 21. Those in the know in Kafr Qassem, report that at the moment, the residents’ motivation to go to the polls on Election Day is not particularly high. This isn’t because the crisis has become tangible and that the Joint List has fallen apart; rather, unlike in recent campaigns, when the parties making up the Joint List announced in advance that they would run together; thus far there has been no official declaration to this effect.

The people of Kafr Qassem have a warm spot in their hearts for Mansour Abbas, the head of the party that represents their homegrown Islamic Movement. They view his political collaboration with Netanyahu in a favorable light, not necessarily because of its immediate benefits, which for now are conspicuous by their absence, but because they see such cooperation as paving the way for broader cooperation between Arab parties and the ruling Jewish parties. Residents involved in Arab politics believe that Abbas has pulled off a brilliant maneuver: he has turned the Joint List into a legitimate political player.

The logic is simple: last year's election campaigns proved to the Arabs that there is no difference between the Jewish parties on the Left and on the Right, when even Gantz and his partners in Blue-White recoiled from forming a government that would have had to depend on the support of the Joint List. Mansour Abbas’s linking up with Netanyahu conveys a simple message: from now on, any candidate who wants to be Prime Minister will have to court the Arab parties, if only on the chance that they might agree to support the government from outside the coalition.

There are currently two approaches within the Joint List. The first, represented by Ayman Odeh, wants to turn the Joint List into the leader of the Knesset's leftwing and opposition bloc. The other, represented by Mansour Abbas, seeks to bolster the Joint List’s political effectiveness even when the Right dominates the Knesset. The Arab public seems to be split between the two approaches. According to the Israeli Voice Index survey conducted at the end of November by the Viterbi Family Center at the Israel Democracy Institute, 41% support Abbas’s collaboration with Netanyahu, and 34% are opposed. The remaining 25% are yet undecided, a reflection of their distrust of the Government’s commitment to dealing with the burning problems of Arab society.

In the end, the Arabs want to see their representatives in the Knesset and are willing to go out vote for them. The specific case of Kafr Qassem, whose residents have already demonstrated that they will go to the polls to put their favorite son in the Knesset, will apply to the entire Arab public if the feeling that its candidates represent it faithfully, grows stronger. For this to happen, they first need to see a closing of the ranks within the Joint List, with each of its components respecting the others. This is why the people of Kafr Qassem are hoping that the Joint List will stay united and that the Islamic Movement will remain part of the List.