Druze cast ballots for first time in Israeli elections

Polling opens for Israeli local elections as protests break out in Golan Heights where Druze will vote for first time since Israeli seized region in 1967.


Israelis voted in local elections Tuesday that saw an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vie for Jerusalem mayor and controversial first-time polls in part of the occupied Golan Heights draw protests.

Polling stations opened as scheduled at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 10:00 pm. Main results were not expected until Wednesday.

Turnout was reported at 42 percent nationwide and 18 percent in Jerusalem by around 4 pm.

Elections for mayors and councils, held every five years, are seen as largely local affairs with few national implications, though they have served as a springboard for politicians harbouring national ambitions.

One significant new element to Tuesday's vote saw minority Druze cast ballots in the Golan Heights for the first time since Israel seized the strategic region from Syria in 1967.

The vote was controversial since many Druze who feel connected to Syria fear it will help Israel legitimise its control over the region.

Several hundred protesters in the village of Majdal Shams, some carrying Syrian flags, temporarily blocked a polling centre as police sought to maintain calm, a correspondent reported.

There had been calls to boycott the election during campaigning and a string of candidates pulled out.

Polling was to occur in four Druze villages in the Golan, though it was called off in two because there were no candidates.

The elections followed a court challenge by a group of Druze who pressed for the right to hold the vote.

Israel has previously appointed local leaders in the villages.

The international community has never recognised Israel's annexation of the Golan.

In Yarka, a separate Druze village in northern Israel outside of the Golan, police said two polling stations were closed after a stun grenade was thrown at one of them, lightly wounding 10 people.

- Possible run-off -


There is similar controversy in east Jerusalem, which Israel also occupied in 1967 and later annexed, though there were no reports of incidents there.

Unlike in national elections, Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem who have not taken Israeli citizenship are eligible to vote in local polls.

But the vast majority stay away, refusing to recognise Israel's control over the sector of the city they see as the capital of their future state.

Some 300,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem.

Israel sees the entire city as its capital, a claim buoyed by US President Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital in December.

Among the few Palestinians in the race is Ramadan Dabash, who heads a list of 12 Arab candidates running for seats on the city council.

He has Israeli citizenship -- rare among Jerusalem Palestinians -- and is a former member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.

Candidates running for municipal polls often do not have formal links to national parties, instead campaigning with locally formed alliances.

"What matters most is to improve the daily lives of residents," said Emmanuel Attia, 45, who was voting in the Israeli settlement of Elazar near Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank.

The Jerusalem mayoral race features six candidates, increasing the likelihood of a second-round runoff on November 13 if no one receives at least 40 percent of the vote.

They are vying to replace Mayor Nir Barkat, who is leaving after two terms to pursue national office as part of Netanyahu's Likud.

Netanyahu is backing his minister for Jerusalem affairs, Ze'ev Elkin, though he faces a tough race.

The premier cast his ballot in Jerusalem and called on residents to "go and vote!"

Other Jerusalem mayoral candidates include Moshe Leon, backed by Jewish ultra-Orthodox factions, and secular candidate Ofer Berkovitch, both city council members.

Ultra-Orthodox candidate Yossi Deitch is also in the race.

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up some 10 percent of Israel's population, wield particular influence in Jerusalem and the city has previously had an ultra-Orthodox mayor.

But any mayor must deal with the various factions represented on Jerusalem's 31-seat council.

Around 16,000 police and volunteers were deployed for the vote, a police spokesman said.