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Arab Israelis see new virus surge as weddings ‘return with a vengeance’

‘Pandemic fatigue,’ low testing, and poor enforcement on gatherings blamed for coronavirus resurgence, which comes after communities successfully reined in infections

A worker checks the temperature of a customer at a store in the northern Arab Israeli town of Deir al-Asad on April 18, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
A worker checks the temperature of a customer at a store in the northern Arab Israeli town of Deir al-Asad on April 18, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Over the past two months, the number of active coronavirus infections among Arab Israelis abruptly surged, dramatically declined, and then began again to climb.

In early October, Arab Israelis had markedly reduced the number of infections in their community to just seven percent of the country’s active cases — even though they are 20% of Israel’s population — according to deputy coronavirus czar Ayman Seif.

According to recent figures, they now constitute around 19% of Israel’s virus cases.

Health officials who spoke to The Times of Israel unanimously blamed the resumption of weddings and large gatherings.

“There’s no question: the large numbers and the quick speed are caused by weddings and social gatherings. We’re seeing the weddings return now, and the numbers go up accordingly,” said Dr. Zahi Saeed, who advises the Clalit health management organization on Arab health.

A man walks past a sign posted by Israel’s Health Ministry instructing people in Arabic to wear face masks as a prevention against COVID-19 coronavirus disease in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem on October 8, 2020. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Saeed also spoke of a spreading sense of “pandemic fatigue” among Arab citizens, who are growing tired of following health guidelines. Many Arab Israeli cities and towns were placed under additional restrictions a week before the rest of the country entered its second national coronavirus lockdown.

“After we managed to become a green [low infection] city again, a lot of people adjusted to the situation and said ‘we’ve won,’ and went back to normal life. The weddings and the parties and the gatherings are back with a vengeance. Our number of infections is still rising,” said Umm al-Fahm municipality official Abd al-Munim Fouad.

Now, the Arab cities and towns of Shefaram, Majd al-Krum, Umm al-Fahm, Sakhnin, Rayna, Khurfish, and Abu Senan are all graded “orange” in terms of viral infection — one step away from the dreaded “red,” which would mean a return to full lockdown.

Yet some Arab cities seem to have maintained a low infection rate throughout the recent uptick. Kafr Qassem, for example, has actually reduced its rate of infection still further, down from 21 per 10,000 residents in early October to 14 per 10,000 on Monday.

But others, such as Majdal Shams, have seen sharp increases in the past week. The northern Druze town of around 11,000 people has seen 43 new cases in the past seven days, according to Health Ministry figures. Ministers voted late Sunday to impose a five-day closure in Majdal Shams, with the curfew going into effect on Monday night. In addition to a closure of almost all businesses, entry and exit from the town was to be restricted.

Dr. Akram Al-Safadi, who manages a health clinic in Majdal Shams, said that in addition to the return of weddings, Druze religious authorities in Majdal Shams had initially done a poor job of ensuring restrictions were observed during ceremonies.

“It’s true that the numbers are not very large right now, but the sharp and quick increase in the last few days is what caused the authorities to make the decision to take action,” said al-Safadi.

Muslim worshipers wearing face masks offer Eid al-Adha prayer at a park as mosques are limited to ten people following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in the mixed Arab Jewish city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, July 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Majdal Shams, which lies in the Golan Heights on the border with Syria, lacks a testing center of its own. Residents can turn to the local health clinics, and the Home Front Command occasionally opens drive-in testing centers. But the isolated Druze town only sends samples to a lab twice a week, leading to short delays, Al-Safadi said.

According to coronavirus czar Ronnie Gamzu, other Arab-majority towns may soon face localized closures, in addition to the partial lockdown that remains in effect nationwide.

“Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm are in danger of becoming ‘red’ cities,” Gamzu said on Sunday, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

No funding, lax enforcement, few tests

Meanwhile, municipal leaders in Arab Israeli towns claim that they have already used up all of their financial resources during the first two waves, saying that without the backing of the government they will be unable to enforce the restrictions.

Arab Israelis have long argued that police are loath to enforce the law in their communities. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have allegedly been holding large weddings in Arab towns in the hope of avoiding law enforcement.

“We’ve asked for two things [from the government]: raising awareness and law enforcement. The government needs to invest in campaigns on every level. And secondly, we need the police to actually come in and enforce the law seriously in Umm al-Fahm, so that people obey the guidelines,” said Fouad.

Another issue is the sharp decline in Arab Israelis being tested for coronavirus. According to the Arab Emergency Commission, only 10% of coronavirus tests in Israel were conducted in Arab Israeli towns and cities over the past week, even though Arabs constitute 20% of Israel’s population.

Those numbers are a significant drop from the height of Israel’s second lockdown, according to numbers provided by the commission. In mid-September, amid intensive efforts by national and local authorities to combat the virus, between 50,000 and 60,000 tests were being conducted every week in Arab Israeli cities.

Over the past week, however, just 22,042 tests were conducted. That number has been dropping for weeks, according to the commission’s data.

The rise in identified cases combined with the drop in testing is deeply concerning, as this could mean that the virus could be spreading undetected in Arab Israeli communities.

Clalit official Saeed, however, cautioned that the drop in tests was entirely to be expected.

A woman stands next to a makeshift checkpoint in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on April 9, 2020. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

“When there’s a high level of infection, we see enormous demand for tests,” Saeed said. “Now that fewer are getting sick, it is reasonable that there are also fewer people getting tested.”

Saeed also pointed out that the number of tests coming back positive — a key measure of how many cases are slipping under the radar — also remained relatively low, around 5%. While higher than in the general population, it is a far lower rate than in the throes of the second wave, when between 10 and 12 percent of tests returned positive.

Gamzu is also reportedly concerned cases are also being imported from areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Gamzu is set to propose a mandatory quarantine for Arab Israelis returning after visiting the PA-controlled areas to go shopping.

Saeed said that he did not believe that traveling to Palestinian areas was a major cause of viral spread, calling it “nonsense.”

“That isn’t a good enough explanation for infection. I’ve sat with a hundred infected patients…if people go and follow the guidelines and wear masks and wash hands, are careful while shopping and maintain distance, it’s not a concern. If we’re not careful, that’s when we get infected. We shouldn’t blame others for it,” Saeed said.

Whether or not Arab Israelis manage to avoid a cataclysmic rise in news infections, the virus has already deeply marked the community.

“The pandemic has reached every neighborhood, entered every home and its neighbors. Social media teems with condolence announcements from families who have lost their loved ones to this virus,” Health Ministry official Dr. Salih Barjas wrote in a statement on Sunday.

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