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Palestinian citizens of Israel gauge their status ahead of election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to return to office. This time he is allied with the far right. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports that one major factor that could help him win is the many Palestinian Arab citizens planning to sit out the vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

MONIA ALAMOUR: (Speaking Arabic).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Monia Alamour is going door to door in her desert hometown Rahat, Israel's most populous Arab city, asking, are you going to vote? She's 20 and working for a campaign to boost Arab voter turnout. Most of her neighbors answer, Insha'Allah, God willing, which can be code for no.

ALAMOUR: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: She replies, "God willing like not really, or you really will go to vote?" We find voter enthusiasm here is low. Twenty percent of citizens in Israel are Arab Palestinian. Unlike Palestinians in the occupied West Bank or Gaza, they have voting rights. An Arab party even made history and joined the governing coalition this past year, seeking more influence for the marginalized Arab community. It didn't last long enough for voters to feel much difference.

BILAL CANAANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: "It was for nothing," says Bilal Canaani, standing in his yard.

CANAANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: "What have they done to reduce crime in the Arab community," he says. "Every day we see someone killed. Today they found someone killed. We're sick of it. People are afraid to leave their homes." He intends to put a blank slip in the ballot box, a protest vote. Alamour, the get-out-the-vote activist, understands the frustration.

ALAMOUR: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She says there used to be a lot of organized crime in Israeli Jewish communities, and the authorities fought it. Despite Israeli government efforts to combat Arab crime in the past year, she thinks Israel has tolerated it because it makes Arabs look bad.

ALAMOUR: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: She points to little kids trailing us. "Why are they here playing in the streets between the cars," she says. Her 11-year-old cousin got run over just the other week. She says these kids don't have after-school activities or public parks or playgrounds like in cities with Jewish populations. There's a new generation of Arab citizens in Israel that expects more, says Amal Jamal, an Arab professor of politics at Tel Aviv University.

AMAL JAMAL: They speak Hebrew fluently. They have gained a profession in law, accounting, engineering, high tech or medicine.

ESTRIN: Integrating into the Israeli economy but not translating that into political influence.

JAMAL: The fact that it's not working is leading to frustration, alienation and, as a result, boycott of the elections.

ESTRIN: In Tuesday's elections, surveys predict Arab voter turnout could be lower than usual. Analysts say that could translate into a victory for right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies, who are hostile to Arabs. One of them is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who recently pulled out a gun confronting Arabs.

ASMAA ALKADI: He's horrible. He's racist. He is the worst.

ESTRIN: Asmaa Alkadi, an organizer of the Arab get-out-the-vote campaign.

ALKADI: And if he gets into the coalition and the government, our life is not going to be any better.

ALAMOUR: (Speaking Arabic).

MUHEISEN KAMALAT: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Out on the streets, Alamour debates Muheisen Kamalat smoking a water pipe on the sidewalk. She says, don't give up your right to vote. He says, that right is only for those close to power and influence. She says, what - we can't be close to power and influence, too? If we throw in the towel and don't vote, she says, the right wing will take office. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Rahat in Southern Israel.

(SOUNDBITEOF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "GUNSHOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.