Aysha Khalifa, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, has no second thoughts about voting on Monday, when Israel holds its third election in less than a year.
A teacher in the central town of Umm al-Fahm, Khalifa says she will cast her ballot for the Arab Joint List, an electoral alliance of four Palestinian political parties, partly as a response to US President Donald Trump‘s deal for the Middle East.
“We are the people of this land,” she told Al Jazeera. “Trump’s deal is not a peace plan because peace is built on justice. I’ll vote to prevent the right wing from gaining power,” Khalifa said.
Heavily weighted in favour of Israel, Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan in late January alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event in the White House.
One of its proposals lays out the possibility of redrawing Israel’s borders, with 10 Palestinian towns including Umm al-Fahm transferred to a future Palestinian state. Some 260,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel living in these towns, which are located in an area known as the “Triangle” near the Green Line, could potentially find themselves outside Israel’s borders.
In turn, the plan, which was rejected outright by the Palestinians, envisions for large swaths of the occupied West Bank to be annexed, including nearly all illegal settlements.
The idea to swap land and population has long been dismissed by Palestinian citizens of Israel and their leaders. Following Trump’s announcement, a number of protests were held in towns across the Triangle, with Youssef Jabareen, a member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) with the Joint List, saying in one of them that Trump’s proposal “perpetuates the occupation and the conflict, and will also perpetuate the cycle of violence”.
Morid Farid, head of the Umm al-Fahm’s public committee, told Al Jazeera that Palestinians living in Israel feel they are being targeted.
“They said that in 1948 [during the creation of the state of Israel] we were ‘given’ to Israel and now, they want to move us as if we are a commodity,” Farid said.
“They’re not targeting the Triangle only, they’re targeting all Palestinians in Israel,” Farid added. “I met people who haven’t voted in years, who have now decided to vote because they believe they’re being targeted.”
The Israeli Haaretz daily reported earlier in February that it was Netanyahu who had encouraged the Trump administration to include in the plan the option of transferring Israel’s Palestinian population in the Triangle to a future Palestinian state.
The idea as part of a peace deal was first proposed in 2004 by Avigdor Lieberman, head of the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party.
“In the past, the idea of swapping [land, population] was an issue that some politicians talked about like Lieberman, but this time it’s official; [the idea] has been raised officially,” Zaki Eghbariya, the acting mayor of Umm al-Fahm, told Al Jazeera.
“We are all part of historical Palestine,” Eghbariya said. “We don’t agree with this swapping,” he added, noting that the proposal would split families. “We are part of the population here; we have families in Haifa and Akka.”
Higher turnout expected for Joint List
Netanyahu and his main rival, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White party, have both failed to form a government after inconclusive elections in April and September.
According to Israeli polls, the Joint List is expected to win a record 14-15 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, improving its September showing when it won 13 seats.
Israeli public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin told Al Jazeera she believes Trump’s plan will have an effect and prompt more Palestinian citizens of Israel to express their denouncement of it by coming out and vote.
Voter turnout in Palestinian communities stood at 60 percent in September’s election, compared with 50 percent in April.
Meanwhile, analysts also predict an increase in Israeli Jews who plan to vote for the Joint List for the first time, after previously voting for left-wing parties.
But as opinion polls predict yet another election stalemate that could only be broken through the formation of a coalition government, Netanyahu recently reneged the proposed territory swap proposal, seen as an attempt to win over votes of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
“It won’t happen. It’s a trial balloon being inflated as part of an effort to get people to vote for the Joint List,” Netanyahu told Panet news website last week.
In another apparent bid to make electoral gains, Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook post last week, which was later deleted, that he planned to introduce direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca in Saudi Arabia to allow Muslim Palestinian citizens of Israel to perform the Hajj pilgrimage.
“Netanyahu lies as much as he blinks,” Ahmad Tibi, MK of the Joint List, told Al Jazeera, regarding the prime minister’s Facebook post.
“Netanyahu wanted to expel us from our homes and now, he wants to make Hajj for us.”
He added that according to the party’s surveys, there will be a higher voter turnout, especially in the Triangle.
‘Just a symbolic role’
Israel’s Palestinian citizens have long said they are not treated as equals in their own country, facing systematic discrimination in law and policy.
In July 2018, Israel passed the controversial nation-state law, which defined the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, further marginalising the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The legislation states that Jewish people have the “exclusive right to national self-determination in it”.
According to Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Centre, there more than 65 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens in Israel and/or Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We want our political rights. We make up 20 percent of the population and we want equality,” Farid said, adding that it is important to vote for the Joint List for representation.
Palestinian communities in Israel face a plethora of problems – among them, a serious housing crisis as the state regularly confiscates land to make way for projects.
According to Eghbariya, Umm al-Fahm originally had 140,000 dunums (14,000 hectares) of land but today, their land has shrunk to about 26,000 dunums (2,600 hectares) for its growing population of 55,000.
Crime is also a major problem. More than 90 Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed in violent incidents in 2019, amounting to a “small civil war”, according to the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel.
Meanwhile, nearly half of Palestinian citizens of Israel live beneath the poverty line.
With such problems chronically unaddressed, some Palestinian citizens of Israel remain sceptical voting will have any effect whatsoever.
Among them is Eghbariya, who feels Palestinian Israeli MKs have “just a symbolic role”, whose presence is used by Israel “to show the world that Israel is a democracy”.
No party representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens has ever been part of an Israeli governing coalition, while the Joint List was unable to prevent the nation-state law from passing.
“I’m boycotting the elections because my vote will not make any difference; we are the minority,” Layla Mahameed, who works in a kindergarten, told Al Jazeera.
“Jews are the majority and their voice will eventually win. [Our representatives won’t serve as] ministers, so we won’t have an impact.”
But Tibi told Al Jazeera that if Palestinian citizens of Israel boycott the election, they will not gain anything.
“We are representing [a party] that’s against racism and fascism. We are the true voice of the people,” Tibi said, adding that they have blocked other controversial laws from passing such as the “Muezzin bill”, which would muffle the Muslim call to prayer from mosques.