Top Arab Israeli virus official says criticism of community not unwarranted
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Top Arab Israeli virus official says criticism of community not unwarranted

After virus czar sparked outrage by saying Arab Israelis’ infection rates are like a ‘terror attack,’ his appointee Ayman Sayyaf admits many not following guidelines

Ayman Sayyaf, head of the Interior Ministry’s Coronavirus Directorate for the Arab Population. (Ynet video screenshot)
Ayman Sayyaf, head of the Interior Ministry’s Coronavirus Directorate for the Arab Population. (Ynet video screenshot)

A top official in the campaign to curb the coronavirus outbreak in the Arab Israeli community has defended the government’s virus czar who sparked outrage by saying infection rates among Arab Israelis were like a terror attack.

Ayman Sayyaf, head of the Interior Ministry’s Coronavirus Directorate for the Arab Population, said Monday that the remarks by Ronni Gamzu, who is leading the national effort against the virus, were well-intended and not without justification. Gamzu later apologized for his comments.

Sayyaf was appointed by Gamzu earlier this month.

“Gamzu’s remarks were not appropriate but I think that is not the point,” Sayyaf told the Ynet news website. “His intention was really to warn Arab society about the situation and to stress that it must behave differently, while adhering to the guidelines.

“To my regret, in the Arab society there really is more disregard for Health Ministry guidelines,” Sayyaf said, urging an awareness campaign and more virus testing.

Sayyaf said he “certainly” accepts Gamzu’s apology and that he is in daily contact with him as they work together to improve the situation in the Arab communities.

“The situation is certainly serious,” Sayaf said. He speculated that because the Arab Israeli community fared relatively well during the initial outbreak of the virus earlier this year, some people have become complacent during the ongoing second wave, and “don’t fear the virus, don’t keep to the rules.”

Family events and weddings, a chief cause of the virus spread, are being held on private properties with 1,000-1,500 people participating, he said. Health Ministry guidelines currently cap weddings at 100 participants, and then only if held outdoors.

The problem, Sayyaf said, is that after Israel rolled back an initial lockdown that brought down infection rates during the initial outbreak, “the feeling is that [the virus] is not so bad. People simply aren’t afraid.”

Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks about infection rates, August 16, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)

On Monday Sayyaf and Gamzu together toured the Druze town of Yarka, where there has been a serious outbreak of the virus.

“The situation may be better than we thought and that is due to actions by the leadership,” Gamzu said following the tour.

Gamzu drew criticism when on Sunday he told Ynet in an interview that “the Arab community has committed in the past fortnight, since Eid al-Adha, almost a terror attack, with hundreds of sick people.”

Condemnation of Gamzu’s remarks was swift, with many pointing out the high percentage of workers in the healthcare system who come from Arab communities.

The head of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, called on Gamzu to work with the Arab community to defeat the pandemic. MK Aida Touma-Sliman said that Gamzu was using “racist discourse.”

Gamzu later apologized, calling the interpretation of his words a misunderstanding and saying he was using the term “terror attack” to signify the effect on Arab communities.

“The intention behind the term ‘terror attack’ was stated in reference to the virus that causes its highest infection rates in the Arab community, and not society in general, as the headlines suggest,” he said. “I would like to apologize if things were not understood in this way.”

The Health Ministry on Friday called on the public to avoid going to Yarka in the Western Galilee, due to its high rates of infection. The infection rate in the city on Sunday morning stood at 197 cases per 10,000 residents.

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