As Delta variant surges, a third of eligible Arab Israelis remain unvaccinated

Coronavirus infections are very low in the community, but officials fear lack of immunization could lead to a serious outbreak, especially among Bedouins

Mohamed Agbariyah receives a coronavirus vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination center in the northern Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, January 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Mohamed Agbariyah receives a coronavirus vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccination center in the northern Arab Israeli town of Umm el-Fahm, January 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Arab Israelis, for now, have avoided the worst of the new outbreak of the ultra-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus in the country. But with hundreds of thousands in the community yet to be vaccinated, health officials fear that the worst lies ahead.

According to Health Ministry data published on Tuesday, around 1.1 million eligible Israelis have not been vaccinated. Some 404,000 of them are Arab — one-third of all Arab Israelis eligible for the vaccine.

The community constitutes 20 percent of the country’s population, but around 36% of the unvaccinated.

“We expect the number of infections to increase, especially as the wedding season kicks in. People have this idea that the coronavirus has simply left, but it’s not the case,” said deputy coronavirus czar Ayman Seif, who directs Israel’s coronavirus response in Arab communities.

Officials say that those shunning the shot are led by a combination of apathy and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories that have taken root among Arab Israelis.

“There’s an enormous amount of fake news spreading about the vaccine, telling people not to get vaccinated. There has also not been an intensive campaign recently to encourage them to get the shot, since for a while the coronavirus was receding,” Seif said.

Around 85% of Arab Israelis over 60 — who are at greater risk for potentially fatal complications — have been vaccinated, Seif said. But they are surrounded by young people who are not.

A young Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at Amal High School in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, on March 17, 2021. (Flash90)

Most Arab Israelis yet to be vaccinated are ages 12-39 — some 315,321 people. They can fall sick themselves or transmit the virus to vaccinated older people, causing breakthrough cases.

“We began vaccinating the younger generation of Arab Israelis when the coronavirus had already begun to dissipate [in June]. There was an atmosphere of ‘it’s all over, so we don’t need to get vaccinated,'” said Seif.

Half of coronavirus hospitalizations among Israelis under 55 are unvaccinated Arabs, according to Riad Majadale, who advises the Health Ministry on coronavirus policy regarding the Arab community.

“There are still many people who are either apathetic, or there are those who think this is all about politics, or an economic conspiracy, or some such,” said Majadale.

Despite the low immunization rate, infections in Arab communities remain disproportionately low. Just 7% of those currently hospitalized are Arab and only 11% of total cases are in Arab cities and towns. The Health Ministry has designated 51 Israeli cities as high-infection “red” areas, but just three of them are Arab.

Health officials speculated that insufficient testing could be behind the low numbers, although the percentage of tests coming back positive — a key indicator of undetected viral spread — also remains low.

But there is a general fear that a tangible surge in cases could be well on its way.

“We were at zero cases just a little bit ago. But now we’re seeing the increase, day by day… once the virus gets its teeth into us, it’ll be a lot worse than what we’re seeing now,” said Zahi Saeed, who serves as deputy director of HaEmek Hospital in Israel’s northern Jezreel Valley.

Saeed anticipates that the peak in infections among Arab Israelis is likely to arrive around mid-September. Arab Israelis are likely to be hit harder by the virus than their Jewish counterparts, as in prior waves, Saeed asserted.

“We’re already a community that’s less healthy, on average, than the Jewish community, with more preexisting conditions, with a lower life expectancy. And we’re less vaccinated as well, on top of that,” warned Saeed, who also advises Clalit — Israel’s largest health management organization — on Arab affairs.

A healthcare worker prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Negev’s main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Officials remain especially concerned about the Bedouin community, which mostly lives in a sprawling network of both planned cities and unrecognized townships in Israel’s southern Negev desert. The townships often are disconnected from electricity and running water, with little access to health clinics or public transportation.

According to Seif, government efforts to make the shot available in May in the far-off townships brought about “a noticeable improvement.” Over 60% of Bedouins over 50 are now vaccinated, still far less than the national average, Seif said.

But most of the 290,000-odd population, some of the poorest in Israel, remain unvaccinated to this day. Residents cite a combination of fear of the vaccine, lack of accessibility to the shot, and deep mistrust of the Israeli government.

The immunization crisis is deepest in the unrecognized villages — townships illegal under Israeli law that receive no state utilities. Israel regularly demolishes new construction there, while Bedouins have vowed to remain where they are.

The Bedouin cities, such as Segev Shalom and Rahat, have seen 24% and 36% vaccination rates, far below the national average. In the unrecognized townships, the numbers are even starker, ranging between 5 to 9 percent, according to Health Ministry figures.

“Even when they brought the vaccine to the townships, there was so much fake news. Until people see the effects of the disease with their eyes, they won’t believe it,” said Salman ibn Hamid, who serves as director-general for the Neve Midbar Regional Council.

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