Arab Society in Israel and the Coronavirus Crisis

Arik Rudnitzky’s essay on Arab Society in Israel also points out surprising levels of coordination across the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

corona virus
Russell Tate from Unsplash   [Free Use   ]

The month of Ramadan is usually filled with a family atmosphere. This month is also charac­terized by economic boom in Arab communities. Many people visit local markets to shop for food to break the fast, and the coffee shops and late night entertainment centers are usually filled. This year, things are different. In the evenings, Arab communities are under complete lockdown and the residents obey the social distancing reg­ulations in order to maintain public health. Arab religious leaders, doctors, and Knesset members – all conveyed the same message to their public: elzam beitak – “Stay at home.” The public has com­plied. The gates of the mosques remain locked and prayers during Ramadan are held at home. Celebrations of Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan will also be limited.

It’s not just the Muslim community (who consti­tute the majority of the Arab population — 85% of 2 million people), who have been affected by the pandemic. Christians (7%) and Druze (8%) have also adjusted to the new reality. During Easter, which took place about two weeks before Ramadan, the doors of the Christian churches remained closed and the colorful parades on the streets were canceled. The Druze community has also set a historical precedent: the traditional fes­tivities of the Nabi Shu’ayib holiday, celebrated ev­ery year at the end of April, were canceled for the first time in the history of the Druze community.

Israel’s first case of the coronavirus was reported in late February. At the end of March, the number of coronavirus patients in Arab localities was less than 60, and the proportion of these cases was negligible, only 1% of about 5,400 cases in total. However, by the beginning of May the number of coronavirus patients in the Arab communities exceeded 1,000, representing 6% of more than 16,000 cases.

Arab morbidity cases

The low morbidity rate of Arab communities has been due to their location on Israel’s geograph­ical periphery, far from the epidemic’s first out­break, providing Arabs with a “natural quaran­tine”. More than 90% of Israel’s Arab citizens live in three major areas: the Galilee (northern Israel), the Triangle region (central Israel), and the Negev (southern Israel).

Arab Society’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

However, Arab public figures claim that the low morbidity rate should not be attributed to Arabs “natural immunity,” but was the result of low-test rate carried out in Arab localities. For example, during the first month of the outbreak, only 6 percent of all tests were conducted in Arab com­munities, significantly lower than their 20 percent share of the population. Further, it is claimed that the government has not provided the public with information about the disease and ways to con­tain it in Arabic. According to the Supreme Mon­itoring Committee, the highest extra-parliamen­tary political body of the Arab public, the state’s health services prioritized treatment and testing in Jewish communities while testing in Arab com­munities began only in the outbreak’s second phase in late March. The impression was that “the treatment of Arabs is only intended to prevent contagion among Jews.”

At the end of March, the Supreme Monitoring Committee and the National Committee of the Heads of Arab Local Authorities in Israel launched the “Arab Emergency Committee,” which estab­lished an operational headquarters and Arabic language call center in Shefar’am to provide the Arab public with professional healthcare infor­mation and support. The committee set-up its operational center at the Galilee Society offices in Shefar’am, which is the oldest registered Arab association in Israel. It was established by Arab doctors in 1981, and it engages in public health and environmental studies. It is considered one of the most professional Arab civil society insti­tutes in Israel. The Arab Emergency Committee has helped coordinate the police and military’s enforcement measures with the local population; tests and gathers data on coronavirus patients and those they have been in contact with; and, conducts public awareness campaigns in Arabic.

The Islamic Movement has also been active among the Arab population. Following the well-known statement of its founder in the 1980s, the late Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish, “If the state does not help us, we shall help ourselves,” the Is­lamic Movement formed its own action commit­tee: “The Nationwide Emergency Committee.” The Islamic Movement’s committee works in coopera­tion with the Arab Emergency Committee, but it is an independent body. It provides food for needy families who are financially affected by the crisis or in quarantine and cannot provide for them­selves. It also provides medical, legal, economic, and psychological counseling services, as well as answers to questions on religious issues, espe­cially during the month of Ramadan. The Islamic Emergency Committee has also set up a call cen­ter with dozens of activists answering questions from the Arab public. The committee’s branches are spread across 65 Arab localities throughout the country: Galilee, the Triangle, Negev and the mixed Jewish-Arab cities. In total, the committee employs some 6,000 volunteers.

The effective measures undertaken by the Arab leadership and civil society organization fill a void left by state authorities. Nevertheless, contrary to past patterns where Arab organizations usual­ly operated autonomously, without coordination with state authorities and sometimes contrary to their opinion, in the current coronavirus crisis the activities of Arab organizations and institutions have been coordinated with state authorities.

The Relations Between Arab Public and State Authorities

For the first time in the history of the State of Is­rael, extraordinary cooperation has been estab­lished between state authorities and the Arab public. In Arab communities, IDF soldiers and police personnel are openly walking around, en­forcing emergency health regulations. The Arab political leadership is backing Israeli enforcement agencies and the Arab public is fully complying.

According to a comprehensive public opinion poll conducted last summer by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung among Arab citizens of Israel, a large ma­jority of them are satisfied with their living stan­dards in the State of Israel (71.5%), believe they are generally treated equally as citizens of the state (65.2%), and overall have a positive impres­sion of the state (64.7%). However, their sense of belonging to the state is somewhat low (4.04 on a scale of 1 to 10).

The lives of Jews and Arabs in the State of Isra­el are almost completely separated: Separate places of residence, separate education systems, and some separation is also evident in the labor market as about half of the Arab workers are self-employed within the Arab communities. In contrast, Arabs are far more integrated into the public health system workforce. The proportion of Arabs working there is greater than the pro­portion of Arab workers in all civil service sectors (11.3%). At present, 17 percent of Israeli doctors come from Arab society, as well as 24 percent of nurses and 47 percent of pharmacists. One of the best-known doctors is Mas’ad Barhum (60), director of the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. Appointed in 2007, Barhum is the first Arab doc­tor to run a government hospital. Quite a few Arab doctors currently hold senior management positions in Israeli medical centers. One of them, whose name recently made headlines, is Dr. Khi­tam Hussein (45). She is the director of the infec­tions department at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the largest hospital in northern Israel, and heads the new anti-coronavirus department. Shortly after the outbreak of the oronavirus crisis, social media networks circulated short clips featuring Arab medical personnel wearing surgical masks with the caption in Hebrew and Arabic: “Partners in Destiny, Partners in Government.”

Should state authorities and Arab leadership take advantage of the cooperation that has been es­tablished under these unusual circumstances, the coronavirus crisis might well introduce a new, more optimistic chapter of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.