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Outgoing coronavirus czar calls for mass testing in Arab communities

Ronni Gamzu says more law enforcement, awareness campaigns needed in Israeli Arab towns as infections seen climbing

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality, on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality, on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu called on Saturday for more testing in Arab communities, as well as more epidemiological investigations and enforcement for distancing and mask rules amid rising infection rates in some towns.

Gamzu was visiting the northern Arab-Israeli town of Fureidis on Saturday alongside incoming coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, a former IDF chief medical officer and medical division director at HMO Maccabi Healthcare Services.

“One can say clearly that there is a renewed outbreak in the Arab community. We are catching it at the beginning. We feared it and today we see it happening,” he said in remarks reported by the Hebrew-language press.

Channel 12 cited Health Ministry figures Saturday night that showed 20% positive COVID-19 tests for Israelis returning in the past week from Turkey, a popular holiday destination for Israeli Arabs.

Gamzu spoke shortly after thousands of people took part in a mass funeral on Saturday for a Druze sheikh in defiance of lockdown measures limiting gatherings, after the sheikh’s body was snatched from a hospital. The funeral for Sheikh Abu Zain Al-Din Hassan Halabi was held in the Golan border town of Majdal Shams, which is currently under lockdown due to its number of active COVID-19 cases per capita, which is currently the highest in Israel.

Gamzu urged everyone who attended the funeral to get tested for the coronavirus, expressing concern it could lead to outbreaks in Druze towns. Israeli Druze, members of a 1,000-year-old offshoot of Shiite Islam, number some 145,000 people and live primarily in the country’s north.

Members of of the Druze community carry the body of late spiritual leader Sheikh Abu Zain Al-Din Hassan Halabi, during his funeral in the Golan Heights border town of Majdal Shams on October 30, 2020, despite a nationwide ban on mass gatherings due to the coronavirus. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Government officials had been seeking to prevent the mass funeral due to the already-high morbidity rate in Majdal Shams and the sides had been working on a compromise, which would have seen the ceremony held at an outdoor gymnasium with a limited number of participants. Opponents of the compromise broke into Ziv hospital before an agreement was reached.

Druze residents of Majdal Shams and the Golan are Syrian in origin, and are permanent residents of Israel but not citizens, unlike Druze in other areas of Israel, who have historically made major contributions to public service in the country, especially in the realm of security.

Speaking on Saturday, Gamzu criticized the low level of testing done in Arab communities and the pressing need to carry out epidemiological investigations.

“Unfortunately, the percentage of tests in the Arab community per capita is the lowest in the past two weeks…I want everyone in the Arab community to be tested this week. This week we are devoting all our resources to the Arab community. We will increase the investigations and the tests and we will carry out [awareness] campaigns,” he said.

Illustrative: 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)

Regarding the investigations, he said, “even if we locate 250-200 cases, there are thousands of infected patients in Arab communities. Most people are asymptomatic. The outbreak can grow like this, producing patients in critical condition and many deaths. This must be prevented — and the best way is testing.”

Gamzu pointed the blame mainly at mass gatherings and weddings and called for people to postpone their nuptials. “There is no such thing as a safe wedding. It is a most dangerous gathering. The police must carry out enforcement operations to thwart [weddings.]”

Government ministers decided Friday to impose a week-long local lockdown on the northern Arab Israeli locality of Bu’eine Nujeidat and to extend the closure on Majdal Shams due to high coronavirus infection rates in both.

Meeting after the co-called coronavirus committee decided early Friday morning to lift a series of restrictions on various business next week as some students return to school, the ad-hoc Ministerial Committee for Restricted Areas decided to impose severe limitations in the two towns until next Thursday.

Speaking at the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, Gamzu said that seven other cities with high infection rates, mostly with majority Arab populations, may need to face similar lockdowns: Taybeh, Kafr Kanna, Manar, Deir al-Asad, Kafr Kassem, Kafr Qara and I’billin.

In addition to a closure of almost all businesses, entry and exit from both Bu’eine Nujeidat and Majdal Shams will be restricted. The nationwide opening of schools for grades 1-4 will be delayed there, but kindergartens, which reopened last week, will continue to operate.

Israel began a month-long lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system.

As nationwide numbers continue to fall, ministers in the coronavirus cabinet decided to move forward the reopening of synagogues to Sunday, but said that street stores must remain closed until at least November 8.

The Health Ministry said on Friday morning that 1.8 percent of the 36,318 tests carried out on Thursday came back positive, the lowest positivity rate since June.

The general decline in the number of tests over the past several weeks, however, has led to expressions of concern from health officials.

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