Arab and Jewish medics together on frontline of Israel's virus fight

Jerusalem (AFP) –


In Israel, Jewish and Arab doctors have worked side by side on the frontlines of the novel coronavirus fight, also battling entrenched schisms between their communities and stressing their unity in the face of the crisis.

Israel's Sheba Medical Center, near the city of Tel Aviv, is ranked among the best in the world and its directors say its standing is thanks to a team of Arab and Jewish caregivers working together in a society otherwise marked by divisions.

"We work together with Arab medical staff everywhere and not just in the time of coronavirus. There is no difference between us," Sheba deputy director emeritus, Rafi Walden, told AFP.

"Without them, the Israeli medical system would collapse."

Israel's Arab minority are the descendants of Palestinians who stayed on their land after the creation of Israel in 1948. They make up around 20 percent of the population, but slightly more of the country's health care workers.

The community regularly says it faces social discrimination and denounces a law that enshrines the Jewish character of Israel.

But as the Jewish state struggles against the deadly novel coronavirus, the crisis is highlighting the collaborative nature of its health service.

A photo shared widely on social media this week showed two medics pausing to pray in front of their ambulance. One was Jewish -- standing and praying in the direction of Jerusalem -- and the other a Muslim, who laid out his prayer rug and knelt facing towards Mecca.

Some internet users praised the image published by Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross, the Magen David Adom, as "inspiring" and underscored the need for unity in a crisis.

Others took the opportunity to highlight the inequalities faced by the Arab minority.

According to a 2017 study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, poverty rates are far higher in Arab neighbourhoods, where the average life expectancy is also four years lower than among Jewish Israelis.

- 'In the trenches together' -

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long faced accusations of racism towards the Arab minority and of inciting hatred against members of Arab political parties. He has described them as a "threat" to the country and one of his ministers has called them "terrorists in suits".

"Netanyahu knows the role of Arabs in the health service and in other sectors and he continues to spread hatred against Arabs and to lie unabashedly," Walden said.

Recently, nearly 700 Israeli medical professionals, roughly half of them Arab and half Jewish, signed a petition calling on Netanyahu to stop sowing division during a public health crisis.

More than 3,800 cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported by Israel as of Sunday, and 12 people have died.

After more than a year of political turmoil marked by three inconclusive general elections, Netanyahu is expected to remain in power and form an "emergency government" to manage the virus outbreak after a surprise agreement by his rival Benny Gantz to work with the premier.

"Our goal, both Arabs and Jews, is to protect humanity, and we call for an end to incitement to hatred. We're in the trenches together working to stop the coronavirus epidemic," said Shukri Awawda, a senior doctor in the Arab city of Nazareth and one of those who spearheaded the petition.

- Disparities in virus response? -

The number of novel coronavirus cases recorded in Arab areas has remained relatively low.

This is "because fewer tests are being conducted in Arab areas", said Israeli Arab lawmaker Jaber Asakla, who has made an urgent call for more resources to manage the health crisis.

Another explanation could be the faster spread of the disease in large cities, according to researcher Mohammad Darawshe, who noted that "nearly 70 percent of Arab citizens live in villages and individual homes".

Meanwhile "70 percent of Jewish citizens live in cities and apartment blocks", said Darawshe, who works with the Givat Haviva centre, which campaigns for equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

With fewer resources, "Arab municipalities are definitely not prepared for when the big wave of coronavirus comes," he warned.

"They have not had the luxury of budgets to train their staff properly for emergency situations."

In a recent campaign on social media, Arab doctors and nurses wearing masks and protective gear urged fellow citizens to avoid spreading the virus by staying home, "for the sake of our loved ones, and for our sake".