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Israel’s Arabs escaped the worst, but Covid-19 signals economic trouble ahead

Muslim worshipers hold Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem's Old City on April 27, 2020, when a strict lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus kept mosques closed around the country. Houses of worship have gradually opened, but the number of worshipers allowed to gather is still limited.
Muslim worshipers hold Ramadan prayers in Jerusalem's Old City on April 27, 2020, when a strict lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus kept mosques closed around the country. Houses of worship have gradually opened, but the number of worshipers allowed to gather is still limited. © Ammar Awad, REUTERS

Israel has gradually been emerging from a strict two-month lockdown, cautiously opening sector after business sector as it continues to monitor the number of Covid-19 cases among the citizens of its diverse communities. And to the surprise of many, the one that has suffered the fewest losses to the outbreak is the country’s Arab populace.

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With a population of around 9 million, Israel has been relatively successful in protecting against the virus. There have been 16,667 cases and 279 deaths as of May 21, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center – a 1.7 percent case-fatality ratio and 3.14 deaths per 100,000 people.

The number of infections per capita has been much lower than in places like France, Spain, Belgium, Italy and the United States, according to the Jerusalem-based Taub Center for Social Policies. And the mortality rate has been “lower than any country in North America, Western Europe or Scandinavia, including Germany, Finland and Iceland”, according to the center’s website.

Israel’s Arab citizens – including Palestinians, Bedouins and Druze, and mostly Muslim or Christian – make up about 20 percent of the population. It is a fragile community often neglected by the government, and when the coronavirus pandemic reached the country, there was concern that the Arab populace, along with the ultra-Orthodox Jews, would be the hardest hit.

The two communities are the country’s poorest. According to the National Insurance Institute, 47 percent of Arab citizens and 52 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens were living under the poverty threshold in 2018. Another crucial factor is the communities’ strained relationship with the majority and with the government.

But despite the forecasts, Israel’s Arab community had the smallest number of cases and casualties due to the virus, with a little more than 1,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and only five deaths.

Ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods did, indeed, become Covid-19 hotspots. According to a report released Wednesday by the Taub Center, 22 percent of all new confirmed infections in Israel between March 31 and May 12, in towns with 5,000 and more residents, were located in entirely ultra-Orthodox towns and cities (home to only 5 percent of the country’s total population). A further 26 percent of total new cases were recorded in three cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations.

“Other Jewish cities and towns contributed around 34 percent to the growth – though they represent roughly 60 percent of the population,” according to the report, titled, “A Picture of the Nation 2020”.

The infection rate in Arab towns, however, accounted for less than 8 percent of the increase in cases in that period, and in Bedouin towns for about 1 percent of the increase.

“Virtually none of the increase in the national rate could be ascribed to Druze areas, where infection rates remained around 18 per 100,000,” the report said – roughly one-tenth of the national average.

“This is a remarkable accomplishment.”

Cooperation and discipline

So how did they do it? The Arab political leadership attributes it to the close cooperation and swift organization of local political, professional and religious leaders – and the discipline of their constituents.

“The organization of the Arab population, in spite of all the neglect on the part of the government in handling and preparing for the coronavirus in this community, was impressive,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Knesset (parliament) member for the Joint List, an alliance of three mainly Arab parties, and chairwoman of the special committee for labor and welfare.

From the start, “we created a war room for the Arab population, which included the biggest experts of our population – health experts, employment experts, information and communications experts – and everybody cooperated,” Touma-Suleiman told FRANCE 24.

“It took the health ministry two weeks to react to our call to translate all the health information messages to Arabic, but we were already working, within the population, and we had already launched an information campaign in the Arabic language, calling on the public to be cautious,” she said.

Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth in the country’s north and Israel’s largest Arab city, with 110,000 residents, said the municipality’s cooperation with the religious leaders and the Israeli security forces was invaluable.

“At first there was concern that the virus would spread among the Arab population. But it was the other way around,” Salam told FRANCE 24. “On March 8, I formed a committee and we met with homeland security and the police, religious leaders, the directors of Nazareth’s three hospitals, and we worked together and came out with one voice, calling on residents to follow the social-distancing instructions … That cooperation was crucial.”

Salam also credited the residents’ discipline. “They didn’t leave their houses, except to buy food, and even then, they followed the social-distancing rules. Also, we drove around the city in a car equipped with a loudspeaker, 24 hours a day, with my voice urging the residents not to leave their homes and to follow the guidelines of the health minister and the prime minister and the mayor,” he added.

That discipline was understandable, according to Touma-Suleiman. “The population demonstrated exemplary responsibility, because they understood that if there would be an outbreak of the virus within this population, it would be a catastrophe. The health services infrastructure in our communities is very weak. The hospitals in Nazareth are not prepared,” she said.

“Also, the Arab villages and towns are very crowded, and that could have led to a serious problem. All these factors made it easy for the citizens to understand the need to be careful, and for the local leaders to understand the need to prepare.”

The role of religion

Kafr Qasim, an Arab city about 20 kilometers east of Tel Aviv with a population of about 23,000, also managed to avoid the spread of Covid-19. Kafr Qasim resident Sheikh Sahwat Freij, deputy head of the Islamic Movement in Israel and chairman of the movement’s national emergency committee, said strict instructions from religious leaders and councils played a significant role in keeping the numbers down.  

“We closed the schools, the mosques, places of worship, and we gave them not ‘recommendations’ but a ‘fatwa’ – a formal religious ruling that they are not allowed to gather for now and that they must stay home as much as possible with their families and avoid going out into the streets,” Freij told FRANCE 24.

“It worked, even though some tried to resist. There are people who go to pray at the mosque five times a day and some older people have been praying this way for decades, and so it’s very difficult. Some of them really cried. But we told them: ‘We have to remain alive in order to return to the mosques and reopen then and go back to our lives.’”

The government and local authorities worried that the lockdown would be especially difficult to enforce during the month of Ramadan, when families gather to break the fast at the end of every day.

“We managed to go through the entire month of Ramadan, when Muslims usually feast together – the entire extended family, 40-50 people. This time, they kept it down to six, seven people or 10 people tops, and they didn’t go out after the meal. So the discipline really helped,” said Salam, the mayor of Nazareth.

With the easing of the lockdown measures, mosques and churches are also reopening. “Instead of limiting the number of worshipers to 10 people, now we’re limiting it to 50-60 people,” Salam said. “Sunday will be a holiday [Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan] but we told them that even during the holiday there can’t be more than 50 to 60 people present” for the services.

Other factors also likely played a role in the low infection and mortality rate among Israel’s Arabs. One is the population’s average age, according to Knesset member Sami Abu Shehadeh of the Joint List.

“The Arab minority in Israel is very young. And tests in Arab society began very late. We don’t know how far the virus really spread among the Arab public in Israel because of the lack of tests. It’s possible that there was, indeed, an outbreak of the virus, but since this is a mainly young population, very few people came to be diagnosed and, of those who were diagnosed, very few died,” Abu Shehadeh told FRANCE 24.

“In addition to that, in Israel there is segregation,” Abu Shehadeh said. “Over 90 percent of residents live segregated: Jews on their own and Arabs on their own. And the Arabs are quite closed off in their areas, and their areas are small. So even if the disease spreads, as it did in Deir el Asad [in the country’s north], it’s under total control.” 

Where government involvement was perceived as lacking, associations and grassroots organizations filled the gap. The Islamic Movement, for example, set up emergency assistance centers with more than 6,000 volunteers around the country.

“We delivered food packages to people in need and we distributed tens of thousands of care packages to homes throughout the country. That also helped us keep the situation under control. Because when you send people help and you send them food, then of course when you then give them instructions they take them seriously because they know you’re on their side,” Freij said.

He added that assistance was not only offered to Arab communities. When the ultra-Orthodox Jewish city of Bnei Brak, just 18km west of Kafr Qasim, was found to be a major hotspot for Covid-19, Kafr Qasim’s Mayor Adel Badir, also of the Islamic Movement, called the mayor of Bnei Brak to offer help.

“Because, you know, the coronavirus doesn’t differentiate between Jew and Arab,” Freij said. “And also, I think that if the situation was reversed, Bnei Brak and the other cities would have offered their help.”

It’s not the virus, it’s the economy

Another factor that helped stem the spread of the disease was the fact that most Arab citizens are employed in the services sector, according to Abu Shehadeh. “Garages, restaurant work, construction, housework, hotel work – all of these businesses closed. Some still haven’t opened, like restaurants and hotels. Therefore, the virus couldn’t spread, because these workers stayed home.”

But this also means that the Arabs were among the hardest hit economically from the lockdown.

“Like with any great disaster that befalls any country in the world, the weak are always the worst off. Half of the Arab population is below the poverty threshold, and the shutting of the services economy has dealt them a serious blow,” Abu Shehadeh said.

“And because of the poverty, the crime rate in our society is also much higher than the national average. Unfortunately, organized crime in past years has played a growing role in our communities, and a lot of the revenue from organized crime comes from loans they give at an interest to citizens. This will complicate matters very much in the near future, since the people who were poor in the first place have now been deprived of their jobs and have had to take out loans in the grey market. And those running the grey market did not take a leave of absence during the coronavirus epidemic, unfortunately,” he added.

Touma-Suleiman said it was clear that the community’s unemployment and poverty rates were going to grow. “Some small businesses have already collapsed and others are on their way to collapse,” she said. “And now statistics show that the worst hit in terms of employment are young Arabs and Arab women. This will be a big blow to the population further down. I don’t foresee them being able to reintegrate in the workforce soon.”

Another issue for the community, Touma-Suleiman said, is that the government decided not to grant unemployment benefits to people under 20 – which only hurts the Arab population, since Israelis under 20 serve in the army and therefore benefit from an allowance, food and board. “But if he’s an Arab under 20 and has already been working and paying social security, he still can’t get unemployment. So these are young people who, for three months, had no income.”

Crisis exposes gaps

Arab society escaped the worst in terms of infection and mortality rates caused by the coronavirus. But economically, they are likely to be the hardest hit, Touma-Suleiman said.

“The Israeli population usually faces crises at a national security level. And then, the rift between the communities deepens, or the Arabs simply keep their distance and keep silent until after the storm. This time it was a different crisis. A civil crisis. A crisis that affects us all, and we are all equal in the face of it. Although, in fact, we’re not really equal, because in terms of physical immunity, it’s true, both Jews and Arabs can become infected. But in terms of health services on the Jewish side, in terms of tests and treatment, it gave them a kind of head start,” she said.

“The crisis exposed the existing gaps in Israeli society in terms of services and in policies,” she said. “But it also exposed the benefit and the need for a civil emergency mobilisation effort rather than a national security effort.”

A paradox of Israeli society is that while half of the country’s Arab population is poor, 20 percent of Israel’s doctors are Arab – as are 25 percent of nurses and about half of all pharmacists. Arab doctors are department heads at some of the country’s main hospitals, including one of the country’s top virologists, Jihad Bishar.

“There was amazing and very fruitful cooperation between the medical teams in the hospitals,” said Abu Shehadeh. The central role played by the Arab doctors as well as the care and maintenance staff “must have affected thousands of people”, he said.

“The Arab medical staff contributed enormously to the battle against the coronavirus. That also influenced their relationships with their Jewish colleagues in the hospitals, and also affected their status and their image in society, and it also helped and saved thousands of people,” he added.

Those interviewed for this article welcomed the cooperation efforts, but were skeptical that it would lead to significant change once the crisis was over.

“If you look at this new government that has just been established, the largest government in the country’s history, without even one Arab minister – when you talk about the government and the issues, then the Arab community is not among them, so that’s not a good omen,” said Freij of the Islamic Movement. “And also, this whole matter of the government’s plan to annex the West Bank and the Jordan Valley – because you know everything that happens there also influences us here. I hope they’ll change direction.”

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