By Ephraim Lavie, Khader Sawaed, Maisalon Dallashi, Mora Deitch and Meir Elran
There has been a significant rise in COVID-19 infection rates in Arab communities in Israel.The month of Ramadan, which is commonly celebrated with large public gatherings, demands sharpened awareness and particular preparations regarding information dissemination, enforcement of health regulations, and urgent provision of health services and assistance to the Arab citizens. The positive engagement of the Arab public in the campaign against the pandemic highlights the need for a basic change of approach toward the Arab community, which is entitled to equal access to the social and health services enjoyed by Israel’s Jewish public.
There has been a significant rise in COVID-19 infection rates in Arab communities in Israel, along with increasing awareness of the challenges of the pandemic and a higher level of adherence to Ministry of Health regulations, which followed widespread distribution of Arabic-language explanatory materials. The month of Ramadan, which is commonly celebrated with large public gatherings, demands sharpened awareness and particular preparations regarding information dissemination, enforcement of health regulations, and urgent provision of health services and assistance to the Arab citizens. The positive engagement of the Arab public in the campaign against the pandemic highlights the need for a basic change of approach toward the Arab community, which is entitled to equal access to the social and health services enjoyed by Israel’s Jewish public.
The spread of COVID-19 among the Arab public in Israel has accelerated significantly in recent days. The infection rate in Deir al-Assad is 18 individuals per 10,000 residents, in Jisr a-Zarqa and Daburiyya 24, in Peki'in 13, and in Umm al-Fahm and Deir Hanna 9. This data reflect the increase in testing, which in Arab communities and particularly in East Jerusalem still lags behind the level in Jewish cities and townships. Such data must serve as a warning sign and command bold steps forward, such as isolation at home, as has in fact been implemented in some locales ahead of the month of Ramadan.
The pandemic exposed a low level of preparedness among Arab local authorities for managing the crisis. Nazareth is the only Arab municipality with hospitals, one of which (the British Hospital) has a COVID-19 ward. But beyond that, lengthy stay at home by large families, together with economic hardship, causes mental stress that can increase domestic violence toward women and children. In March 2020 there was a significant rise in emergency calls to the Ministry of Welfare's domestic violence hotline.
Overall, the Arab public is following the Ministry of Health guidelines, after Arabic-language information was distributed more widely. Civil society activists, religious leaders, and medical professionals have all called on residents to obey instructions and refrain from gathering for prayer and other mass events and from opening nonessential businesses. The decision by the Islamic Council for Religious Rulings not to hold Friday prayers at mosques has been effectively enforced and backed by imams, and the decision by the Supreme Monitoring Committee not to hold public events marking the annual Land Day (March 30, 2020) was respected.
Heads of Arab municipalities and national leaders decided to promote public health as the highest priority. The Higher Monitoring Committee established an emergency committee for coordinating activities in Arab communities. The southern branch of the Islamic Movement also established a national emergency committee and emergency centers for response to public inquiries. They are active in making the health related information accessible in Arabic through social media and local advisory centers for small business that also provide psychological, legal, and medical assistance as well as food delivery for needy families.
Following intensive activity by Arab leaders and professionals, who cautioned about the lack of accurate data on infection rates in Arab communities, mobile testing stations were gradually set up, public information to encourage testing has increased, and consequently more Arab citizens who tested positive for COVID-19 have been sent to state-run coronavirus hostels. In response to a petition by the Adalah Center for Arab Minority Rights, the Supreme Court ruled that the policy concerning allocation of resources for testing is unclear, and that the state must consider additional testing facilities for the Arab sector. The National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities demanded that the Minister of Health include an Arab representative in decision making on the coronavirus crisis management. Close coordination between the IDF Home Front Command, Magen David Adom, the Israel Police, and the heads of Arab municipalities has been welcomed by the Arab public, with particular appreciation for the humanitarian gesture of the distribution of food to Arab localities by the IDF.
Public opinion surveys conducted over the past month in Arab society have revealed gaps between Arabs and Jews in relation to the coronavirus outbreak. An Israel Democracy Institute poll (March 30) found that only 42 percent of the Arab public was satisfied with government handling of the crisis, while a higher percentage than in the Jewish public expressed concern for their economic future (79 percent in comparison to 71 percent), mostly due to fears of employment instability. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, only 43 percent of those polled in the Arab public have internet access through computers in their home (as opposed to 77 percent of Jewish citizens). An investigation by the Sikkuy NGO found that the Ministry of Education website has twice as many study materials for Hebrew speakers than for Arabic speakers. In addition, a survey by Panet found that the Arab public accepted Ministry of Health instructions with a high degree of understanding (82 percent do not believe that the instructions are too far-reaching.) An inquiry about social solidarity found that the average ranking by Jews was somewhat higher – 6.86 – than by Arabs at 5.67.
The coming month of Ramadan (April 24-May 23) represents a particular challenge, as this month-long religious event typically entails a practice of mass gathering in public spaces, large scale nightly Tarawih prayers in mosques, family visits, and Iftar break-fast meals with numerous participants. The Islamic Council for Religious Rulings published a fatwa (religious decree) calling on believers to pray at home over the month. Leaders and institutions throughout the Arab world (such as al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt, the Jordanian Ministry of Religion, and the Mufti of the Palestinian Authority) have ruled that Tarawih prayers should not be held in mosques this year. Still, these rulings do not guarantee that there will be comprehensive absence from public gatherings during the holiday.
The Arab public plays an active role in the fight against COVID-19. According to official statistics, 17 percent of doctors in Israel are Arab, 24 percent of nurses and pharmacists are Arab, and 21 percent of other health and nursing professions are Arab. Expressions of solidarity of the Arab public with the Jewish public are also noteworthy. Arab municipality heads and Knesset members have called to breach the walls that separate Jews from Arabs. Some have offered assistance to Jewish residents of Bnei Brak and even proposed to use their emergency center, established by the Islamic Movement in Kfar Qasem (with 150 doctors, lawyers and accountants), for the needs of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox public.
This reality demonstrates that cooperation between all Israeli sectors and equal fulfillment of the right to healthcare are critical for overcoming the crisis. The pandemic can serve as an opportunity to focus on the commonalities between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority, and reexamine policies and attitudes toward Arabs. Continued discrimination in medical services, welfare, and education, as even the state recognized in the introduction to the 2015 five-year plan for the Arab sector, will lead to polarization, feelings of neglect, and distrust toward the state. An economic collapse in the Arab sector resulting from the pandemic might well lead to even wider socioeconomic gaps, a slowdown of Arab integration in the workforce, and possibly an increased level of violence within this community.
Therefore, it is important to enhance close coordination between government ministries, the Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities, and Arab leaders in distributing focused information designed specifically for the needs of the Arab public which encourage adherence to the Ministry of Health instructions. The materials in Arabic should be carefully tailored to best reach each group within Arab society, with the assistance of medical professionals, Arab leaders, and civil society groups.
It is preferred that IDF soldiers, particularly armed soldiers, not be deployed in Arab localities for the purpose of lockdown enforcement. If this cannot be avoided, they should be posted in police uniforms or in civilian clothing. The Home Front Command should assist with the distribution of food and essential products to Arab civilians in home isolation.
Whenever a gradual return to routine is implemented, public statements and practical measures should relate equally to the Arab and Jewish sectors, including economic relief measures.
Overall, the coronavirus crisis should be used as an opportunity to work together with the Arab public on the basis of equality and mutual respect. It is important to highlight the role played by Arabs in the fight against the pandemic and the solidarity Arab communities demonstrated with Jewish ones, and promote policies that will bridge existing economic and infrastructural gaps between them. At the present time, the focus should be on bridging gaps in healthcare, education, and welfare services.