Middle East

The Israelis who give their vote to Palestinians

Aya Shoshan
Image caption Aya Shoshan will vote according to the wishes of a Palestinian from the West Bank

When Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday, many will be voting for policies on dealing with the Palestinians. For some though, it is an opportunity to reach out to Palestinians themselves to let them have a say in Israeli politics, and they are doing this by donating their vote, as Yuval Ben-Ami reports from Tel Aviv.

Aya Shoshan does not look like the kind of person who would give up her right to vote.

Besides being a politics student at Ben Gurion University, she is a member of an organisation helping struggling Palestinian communities in the South Hebron hills benefit from renewable energy sources. In short, she is an informed, concerned Israeli citizen.

At some point, however, her concerns made her doubt Israel's very idea of democracy. "I believe that that the act of voting is far less important than that of creating public awareness." She says "There are almost four million Palestinians living under Israeli rule with no civil rights and in a state of shocking inequality."

Around a million-and-a-half Palestinians are citizens of Israel, and may vote in its elections. Two-and-a-half million others are governed by the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and by Hamas in Gaza, and have the vote in Palestinian municipal and legislative elections.

To varying degrees, the residents of all territories remain subject to Israeli policies.

Through a new initiative called Real Democracy, Ms Shoshan met a Palestinian from the West Bank, who, like other West Bank residents, is not eligible to vote in Israel's upcoming elections, and "donated" her vote to him.

"He hasn't yet decided who to vote for," she says. "He wrote to me online that the gesture truly moves him, and that he will study the Israeli parties and get back to me with his pick."

Facebook group

Real Democracy draws its inspiration from a campaign launched in Britain in 2010.

Image caption The campaign's Facebook page has drawn over 1,000 'likes'

The Give Your Vote project called on British citizens to donate their votes to individuals who are directly affected by UK policies in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Ghana.

Shimri Tzameret, an Israeli activist who studied in the UK and worked in a research initiative called Building Global Democracy at Warwick University, was involved in the British campaign and can be credited with importing the concept to his native land. In true democratic tradition, he rejects such recognition.

"There are no organisers and participants," he says, "there is no hierarchy. We are doing this horizontally."

Mr Tzameret believes the Palestinians to be unjustly disempowered, not only on a national level, but on an international one too.

"International organisations such as the UN are governed undemocratically," he says.

"The UN was founded six decades ago by the nations that won World War II. Since Israel is linked to the US, I benefit as an Israeli from the undemocratic power belonging to the US. This means that when I vote for the Israeli government I don't only vote for whoever governs the West Bank, but also for whoever governs the Security Council."

Interested in sharing this power, Mr Tzameret and his friends opened a Facebook group which quickly drew over a thousand Israelis and Palestinians.

An Israeli member may offer his or her vote, and a Palestinian may declare that he or she is willing to participate in the Israeli democratic process.

Since Israel prohibits most Palestinians from entering its territory without special permits and bars Israelis from visiting West Bank cities, most pairs will have never met in person.

Perhaps ironically, Mr Tzameret's Palestinian partner, a 19-year-old Hebronite named Omar, is considering using his right to vote to boycott the elections.

If this is Omar's final decision, Mr Tzameret vows to refrain from voting.

"Statistically, the weight of an individual's vote is negligible," he says, "and besides, all the talk about left and right within the Israeli system does nothing but camouflage the fact that this is not a democracy."

'Against the tide'

Image caption Bassam Aramin, whose daughter was killed in the conflict, supports the campaign

One better-known participant in the project on the Palestinian side is Bassam Aramin.

Mr Aramin's 10-year-old daughter was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli border guard during clashes with Palestinians in the West Bank town of Anata, in 2007.

He has since been active in reconciliation efforts. He is among the founders of Combatants for Peace, an organisation of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, who swap their weapons for words, and a member of the Bereaved Families Forum, which brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the conflict.

Mr Aramin quickly warmed to the idea. "Of course elections are an internal issue in every country, and outsiders must not interfere, but here the idea is one of protest: A democratic society conquers another. How can that be?"

He says he expected many Palestinians would object, but found the contrary to be true. "It appears to be our role to do those things that are unusual, to swim against the current," he says. "As for me, I'm glad that a campaign like this exposes Palestinians to good and moral people on the other side."

Mr Aramin's partner is an Israeli named Ofer. Through Ofer, he will be voting for Hadash, a party of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel, promoting a progressive and socialist agenda.

"I thought as an Israeli, not as a Palestinian," he says. "I asked myself which party I would vote for had I been an Israeli, and this seemed to be the best choice."

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