Arab citizens of Israel total some 20 percent of the population. And while the COVID-19 does not observe ethnic boundaries, Israeli Arabs are making a particular contribution and facing particular difficulties during this crisis.
Israeli Arabs are crucial to the medical sector in Israel. More than 23 percent of doctors, 28 percent of nurses and 54 percent of pharmacists in Israel are Israeli Arabs; many hold senior positions in the medical battle against the coronavirus.
“We nurses are working round the clock, like all medical personnel,” says Suha Mahmoud, 37, a nurse at a hospital in northern Israel. “I have always felt like an equal among my colleagues, but until the corona crisis, I had encountered racism from Jewish patients. This crisis has helped us all come together. The patients know that we all are giving everything we can, that we are all risking our own health and abandoning our families to work long shifts. And the patients and their families are showing appreciation for us as professionals, whether we are Arabs or Jews.”
That appreciation is evident in both social and mainstream media. Yet Mahmoud says that she feels most gratified when an Arab medical professional is interviewed in the press–not as an Arab, but as a medical professional speaking about his or her particular expertise and experience. “I don’t want to be recognized as an ‘Arab nurse.’ I am a nurse, and my ethnicity should not be considered relevant to the work I do.” she says. “That’s when I’ll really feel like an equal.”
Mohammed Darawshe, a researcher and political analyst at Givat Haviva, an institution promoting equality and shared society among Israeli Jews and Arabs, notes that the Arab sector seems to be “lagging behind” in the spread of the virus, and the first two cases were only diagnosed Thursday. Speaking in a press briefing, Darawshe attributes this to the fact that the virus may spread more quickly within densely populated urban areas and that 70 percent of Arabs live in villages and small towns– many in separate houses located within extended family compound-like small neighborhoods.
However, he notes, there is no reason to assume that the virus won’t catch up soon, and the Arab sector is unprepared. Over all, he says, the Arab sector is not self-quarantining in the way that it should. He notes that many Arabs do not watch the local news, and, until recently, very little of the information distributed by the Ministry of Health was translated into Arabic. Moreover, because many are disaffected from the Jewish majority, the Arab community, he emphasizes, “had a feeling that this was just a fiction, or that their community wouldn’t be affected, and that it’s a problem of the big cities.”
Now, he says, the public is beginning to comprehend the seriousness of the situation, but he is worried that the new, strict regulations issued Wednesday by the government, which entail an extensive lockdown, will not be enforced. “It’s been three days since I saw a policeman in a village,” he says. “The police have neglected the Arab sector for many years, and there is a problem of mistrust between the population and the police and authorities.” As a result, he says, the public does not take many regulations seriously, and the police rarely enforce them.
Generally, Arab localities are much poorer than most Jewish localities and provide fewer services. Since nearly 47 percent of Arab citizens live below the poverty line, they do not pay municipal and local taxes. As a result, the Arab municipalities have a very low tax base. “Most of the municipalities can manage on the day-to-day,” he says, “but future preparedness [such as for a crisis like this] is considered somewhat of a luxury.”
Levels of morbidity in the Arab sector are higher than in the Jewish sector, he adds, particularly with regard to hypertension, diabetes and obesity. “We have a higher-risk population. And while we have many doctors and medical professionals within our community, they are providing services to the general public, as they should be, since medical services should be provided according to medical needs, not ethnicity.”
Maysanna Morany, an attorney for Adalah, an Arab legal rights group, adds that because Arab localities have suffered from low budgets and poor services from the government for many years, social activists are concerned that the Arab population will not receive the necessary medical and supportive services at this time. “Most Arabs live in the periphery, far from hospitals. And while drive-in centers for coronavirus testing are being set up, not one of them is near an Arab village,” Morany says.
“Adalah has written to the Ministry asking to set up testing centers for the Arab public, but the Ministry responded that there were not enough diagnosed cases,” she says. “But maybe there aren’t enough cases because they haven’t been tested and diagnosed.”
Morany adds that there are problems with the long-distance learning provided by the education ministry as well. “Very little of the material that was prepared for distance learning has been made available in Arabic. And even for the material that does exist, because of poverty, there are fewer computers and other resources in Arab homes.”
All of these problems are even more severe among the Bedouin in Israel’s southern district. Some 300,000 Bedouin live in this area, about one-third of whom live in “unrecognized villages.” These villages, because they were not established according to Israeli master planning, are not connected to the electric grid and do not receive sanitation or other public services. “How are people supposed to wash their hands if they don’t even have running water?” Morany says. “Most of their electricity comes from solar panels, which are dependent on the weather, so they don’t have hot water or electrical power some or much of the time. And because the villages are unrecognized, there are no paved roads leading to them, and even ambulances don’t always respond to medical emergencies, and hospitals and testing centers are miles away. The residents of these villages are extremely vulnerable.”
Mahmoud, the nurse working in the hospital in the north, concludes, “the medical system is a place of equality between Arabs and Jews, both for staff and for patients. But outside of the medical system, Arabs are discriminated against in many ways. We have needed systemic solutions to create greater equality for a long time, and now we realize that we needed them even more.”