Israeli Arabs avoid the worst, but not the economic crisis

The Arab community, which is considered the most vulnerable in Israel, has weathered the pandemic particularly well. But it suffers from the financial consequences of rigorous prison for two months to fight against Covid-19.

With a total of 16,683 cases and 279 deaths on May 23, Israel and its nine million people have been relatively spared from Covid-19. The ratio of deaths to residents established by Johns-Hopkins University is low since it stands at 3.14 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 42.12 for example for France. And the number of pollutants there is also much lower than in many European countries.

The death toll is even lower for the Arab community in Israel, which has the lowest number of Covid-19 deaths and deaths, with about 1,000 confirmed infections and only five deaths. Arab citizens of Israel (Palestinians, Bedouins and Drusians, mainly Muslim or Christian) represent 20% of the population. A fragile community, often neglected by public authorities, who seemed particularly vulnerable when the pandemic hit the country, as did the ultra-Orthodox. These two communities are the poorest in the country: 47% of Arab citizens and 52% of ultra-Orthodox lived below the poverty line in 2018, according to the National Insurance Institute.

But unlike Arab society, where the pollution rate represented 8% of the new cases, ultra-Orthodox cities and districts have become dirty pollution. According to a report from the Taub Center for Social Policy, based in Jerusalem, 22% of new infections in Israel, registered between March 31 and May 12 in cities of 5,000 or more, in cities and towns populated exclusively by ultra-Orthodox. However, they represent only 5% of the population.

Collaboration and discipline

For Arab political leaders, these results are primarily linked to the cooperation and responsiveness of local political, professional and religious organizations as well as to the discipline of their members. “The organization of the Arab population has been impressive, despite the government’s lack of involvement in dealing with and preparing for the crisis with our society,” Aida Touma-Suleiman, Member of the Israeli Parliament, told France 24. for the unified list, an alliance of three mainly Arab parties.

From the beginning, “we have created a war cell for the Arab population, which brings together the best experts from our community, specialists in health, employment, information and communication, and all have collaborated,” adds Aida Touma-Suleiman, also chair of the Special Committee on Labor and social assistance.

“It took the Israeli Ministry of Health two weeks to respond to our request to translate the information into Arabic. But we were already working among the population and we had already launched an information campaign in Arabic, urging the community to take precautions,” adds Aida Touma- Suleiman.

A car and a speaker to inform

Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel (110,000 inhabitants) located in the northern country, believes that the cooperation between the municipality, religious leaders and the Israeli security forces has been of great help. .

“In the beginning, there was a real concern that the virus would spread to the Arab population. But it did not happen,” he explains to France 24. “On March 8, I formed a committee and we met with national security, the police, the religious authorities, the directors. for the three hospitals in Nazareth and we worked with one voice to urge citizens to respect social distance measures. This collaboration was crucial. “

For Ali Salam, the residents showed admirable discipline: “They did not leave their house except to buy food, and even then they apply the rules. We had a car equipped with “a speaker that circulated in the city 24 hours a day and sent instructions to stay home and respect the directives of the Ministry of Health, the Prime Minister and the Mayor”.

This level of discipline is not surprising, said Vice President Aida Touma-Suleiman: “The people have shown exemplary responsibility because they understood that an epidemic among the population would have been a disaster. Our health infrastructures are weak. The hospitals in Nazareth were not prepared for a such a crisis, she said.

Limited religious gatherings

Kafr Qasim, an Arab city with 23,000 people 20 kilometers from Tel Aviv, also managed to prevent the spread of the virus. Sheikh Sahwat Freij, deputy secretary of the Islamic Movement in Israel and chairman of the movement’s National Emergency Committee, said that strict instructions from religious bodies played an important role.

“In Kafr Qasim, we closed schools, mosques, places of worship and we did not make recommendations to people but a” fatwa “, a formal religious order, stating that they should not be gathered at the moment and that they should stay home with their families as much as possible and avoid walking the streets, ”he describes to France 24

“It worked even though some people tried to resist. There are people who go to pray in the mosque five times a day. Some of them are older and have been doing this for decades and therefore it is very difficult for them to change their habits. But we told them: we have to stay alive so we can return to the mosque and resume our respective lives. “

Government and local authorities feared that containment would be difficult to enforce during the month of Ramadan, with families gathering to break their fast at the end of each day. “We managed to keep going throughout the month, when Muslims usually share the evening meal with the whole family, ie 40 to 50 people. This time they reduced that number to 6.7 or a maximum of 10 people and they did not go out after the meal. The discipline helped really, “said Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth.

With relief from the containment measures, mosques and churches are reopened. “Instead of limiting the number of believers to 10, we limit them to 50 or 60,” Ali Salam specifies. “Sunday (May 24) will be a holiday (Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan) but we told them that even on this occasion there can be no more than 50 or 60 people during the service.”

A very young population

Other factors may explain the low rate of pollution and deaths among Israeli Arabs, such as the average age of the population, according to Sami Abu Shehadeh, a member of the Knesset for the Unified List.

“The Arab minority in Israel is very young. Testing in the community started very late. We do not know how much the virus has spread due to the lack of tests. It is possible that there has been an epidemic but because the population is predominantly young there are very few cases are diagnosed and among them, very few deaths are to be regretted, he explains.

“In addition, there is the problem of segregation in Israel. More than 90% of the residents live separated: the Jews between them, the same for the Arabs. The latter are very isolated in their small neighborhood. So even if they spread the virus, as it did in Deir el Asad [au Nord, NDLR], the epidemic remains completely under control, “said Sami Abu Shehadeh.

“We have distributed food packages to people in need and taken tens of thousands of home care kits across the country. It has also helped us keep the situation under control. Because when you bring help and food, people are more responsive to your instructions. They take them seriously because they know you are on their side, says Sheikh Sahwat Freij.

He specifies that this support was not reserved for Arab communities. When the ultra-Orthodox Jewish city of Bnei Brak, 18 km from Kafr Qasim, became a melt in infection, Mayor Adel Badir, also a member of the Islamic movement, called the mayor of Bnei Brak to offer him help. A question of common sense, according to Deputy Sheikh Sahwat Freij: “You know, the corona virus makes no difference between Jews and Arabs. I think if the situation had been reversed, Bnei Brak and the other cities would also have offered their ugly”.

The specter of unemployment

Another factor that has helped prevent the spread of the virus is the fact that most Israeli Arabs work in the service sector, according to Sami Abu Shehadeh. “Garages, restaurants, construction companies, hotels, housekeeping services … all these activities have stopped. Some sectors are still stalled, such as restaurants or hotels. The virus has not spread since all these workers stayed home.”

While the Israeli Arab community has relatively spared the virus, the local economy has been hard hit by containment. “As with every disaster that hits a country, the weakest are the least distant. Half of the Arab population lives below the poverty line and the stoppage of the service economy was a powerful blow,” says Sami Abu Shehadeh.

“Because of poverty, crime is also much higher in our society than the national average. Unfortunately, organized crime has become more widespread in recent years, and much of this revenue comes from interest-bearing loans to This will cause major problems within a short time. “Because people who are already poor have lost their jobs and have had to take up this type of funding. Unfortunately, the people managing these companies have not stopped working during the coronavirus epidemic,” he said.

For Aida Touma-Suleiman, it is obvious that unemployment and poverty in society will increase. “Small businesses have already disappeared; others are on their way to bankruptcy,” she said. “Now the statistics show that the hardest hit in the labor market are young Arab men and women. This will be a big problem; I don’t think they will be able to get into the workforce easily.”

Another problem, she said, was the Israeli government’s decision not to provide unemployment benefits to people under the age of 20. A measure that only affects the Arab population because Israelis under 20 years of age perform their military service and therefore benefit from subsidy, food and housing. “Even if an Arab under 20 has already worked and paid social security contributions, he will not receive unemployment benefits. As a result of these three months of crisis, these young people will receive nothing.” And local authorities will therefore have to deal with the social consequences of the epidemic.

Article translated from the original in English by David Rich.