As coronavirus cases rise, Arab mayors welcome new restrictions

Municipal leaders back nightly curfews, but express concern over potential return to total lockdown; acknowledge mass weddings are driving spike

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu (front left) speaks at a meeting with local Arab leaders in Daliat el-Carmel, September 5, 2020. (Screen grab/Kan)
Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu (front left) speaks at a meeting with local Arab leaders in Daliat el-Carmel, September 5, 2020. (Screen grab/Kan)

With coronavirus cases rising in Israeli Arab communities, many Arab officials and health experts said they welcome new health restrictions in Arab cities and towns.

Following political pressure from ultra-Orthodox mayors Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to impose nightly curfews on some 40 cities with high infection numbers, instead of the previously planned full lockdown of a smaller number of towns. Schools would close entirely for the duration of the measures.

The majority of cities expected to face the new restrictions are either Arab or ultra-Orthodox. Arab Israeli officials have broadly supported partial lockdowns in their cities and towns. From Tira to Umm al-Fahm, many Arab Israeli mayors said they would welcome new restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Umm al-Fahm has 410 active cases, 268 of which were detected in the past week. The municipality opened a coronavirus testing station and prepared a “war room” to fight the spiraling infections, a city official told The Times of Israel.

“The numbers speak for themselves. There is no escaping a lockdown. It hurts me to say, but it’s the truth,” Umm al-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahameed told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday morning.

As of September 1 — before the past week saw another leap in cases — Arab Israelis accounted for about 28.8 percent of active cases in the country, despite constituting only about one-fifth of Israel’s population.

Many Israelis blame what they see as inconsistent, last-minute decision-making by the government as the reason for the so far ineffectual response to the second wave of coronavirus.

The disproportionate uptick in infections in Arab Israeli communities has been blamed on mass weddings. Arab weddings can be enormous and elaborate affairs, with hundreds or even thousands of participants cramming into wedding halls.

Jerusalemites wearing face masks for fear of coronavirus walk in the Old City on September 02, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

To stop the spread of the virus, local authorities closed wedding halls. But the policy backfired when residents began holding weddings in their homes instead.

“There’s enough blame to go around — the national government, local officials, the coronavirus czar Gamzu. But the situation in Arab towns and villages ultimately goes back to us: We’re not following the rules, especially on weddings,” said Ahmad al-Sheikh, director of The Galilee Society, the largest Arab Israeli nonprofit focused on providing health services in the country.

At the same time, many see a lockdown as a road to economic disaster. Arab Israelis — already less wealthy on average than their Jewish counterparts — have been disproportionately hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. Many work in tourism and the service industries, two sectors that have taken heavy losses.

“A lockdown is going to have enormous negative consequences. It’s going to further damage families suffering from unemployment and hurt small businesses. We’re talking about an already economically underdeveloped community, with fragile infrastructure,” al-Sheikh said.

Despite leading one of Israel’s hardest-hit Arab cities, Al-Tira Mayor Mamoun Abd al-Hayy submitted his objection to a full lockdown on Saturday afternoon, stating that he preferred a nightly curfew instead. Al-Tira has 204 infections for every 10,000 residents, the highest number in the country.

Arara Mayor Mudar Younes, who chairs the National Union of Arab Municipalities, argued that “much of the good of a full lockdown can be achieved with a partial lockdown, without the resulting damage.”

“Whether we end up seeing a total or partial lockdown, this is ultimately necessary. As Arab municipalities, we completely understand the consequences of coronavirus,” Younes told The Times of Israel.

National Union of Arab Municipalities chairman Mudar Younes (courtesy)

Kafr Qasim Mayor Adel Badir said that he supported a limited lockdown in his own city. Given that the vast majority of coronavirus cases were spread at weddings, a nightly curfew would be necessary to break the chain of infection, he said.

“Everyone knows the truth: It is the weddings that are the problem… around 80% of what we’re seeing can be traced back to weddings. If we shut down our cities during the nighttime, and enforce a curfew, we’ll avoid the majority of the cases,” Badir told The Times of Israel.

While Kafr Qasim is still technically a “red” city according to the “traffic light” criteria set down by Gamzu, the number of daily infections has been decreasing for the past four days, Badir said.

“If we had 70 daily infections last week, we’ve seen infections go down to as low as 10-11 over the past few days,” Badir said. “We need to get back down to zero new cases, so we can get a fresh start.”

At least one mayor of a major Arab city registered opposition to new restrictions: Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem declared that he would resist any lockdown imposed on his city.

Nazareth has seen a rise in coronavirus cases among students and teachers in recent days, which has the potential to ignite a deadly chain of transmission.

Despite relatively few overall cases, Gamzu placed the city — known as “the Arab capital of Israel” — on a list of red cities registering high numbers of infections. The city depends heavily on its normally bustling tourist attractions for revenue.

“We won’t let Nazareth be called a ‘red city.’ We’re going to be open for business as usual, working as usual… any toe out of line by the Health Ministry and there will be a general strike and protests and things they haven’t even dreamed of,” Salem told Radio al-Shams on Friday.

Salem appeared to be skeptical that the coronavirus had taken root in Nazareth at all, saying that he would not believe that there were many cases in the city until he saw proof.

“I told Gamzu and [deputy coronavirus czar] Ayman Seif: Bring the names and ID cards of the sick people,” Salem said. “I want all their names.”

Some Arab officials questioned whether a nightly curfew would simply lead to many businesses to close early as weddings and other social gatherings continued. Arab municipalities have long seen little police presence and seemingly do not have the ability to enforce health and safety regulations.

Al-Sheikh said that he often received reports of weddings taking place in plain sight of police officers without them interfering to break them up.

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)

“We see many gatherings in our communities, and the police are hesitant to enter and break them up. Even if they do show up, there is no guarantee that it will deter people, as the highest fine — 5,000 NIS [$1,482] — is less than one can earn by renting out a wedding hall,” Younes said.

In order to deter people from gathering, police need to be willing to enter Arab communities and should have the authority to hand out serious fines, Younes said.

In response to the criticism, the Israel Police has pledged to begin enforcing restrictions in Arab communities.

“One who has given fair warning is not to blame,” said police spokesperson Waseem Badr, invoking a well-known Arabic proverb. “The Israel Police has ended the period of warning, guiding and consciousness-raising and transitioned to the stage of resolutely enforcing the law.”

Whatever policy decisions are made going forward, Arab municipalities and health organizations will face enormous challenges, Younes said.

“Government neglect, inconsistent planning, absolutely no clear policy, it’s all true. But that does not absolve us as a community. We are ultimately responsible for the situation,” he said.

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