"No testing for corona in the Arab sector. The situation will blow up in our faces."

Aiman Saif, the former director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Minority Sectors, warns of an economic catastrophe and calls on the Joint List to talk to everyone – including the Likud.

Aiman Saif, the former director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Minority Sectors, warns of an economic catastrophe and calls on the Joint List to talk to everyone – including the Likud.

Aiman Saif, the former director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Minority Sectors, warns of an economic catastrophe and calls on the Joint List to talk to everyone – including the Likud.

Doron Avigad

April 2, 2020

Summary

A

n examination of the Israeli coronavirus exposure map, which is published and constantly updated by the Ministry of Health (https://bit.ly/2WCdmaB), reveals the following surprising information: the terrifying virus has hardly touched the Arab sector. There are a just a handful of reports: a restaurant in Daliyat־al־Carmel from March 9, a church in Kafr Kanna a day later, and not much else. Look at Migdal Ha’Emek and Tiberias, a short distance away, and you will see double figures. There are reported cases in Haifa and the Krayot, but, amazingly, Shfar’am is clean as are Sakhnin, Yarka, and Maghar. How is this possible? It’s not, of course. Just as the ratings of commercial television stations or public opinion polls only count the Jewish sector, so too the coronavirus; it’s not the virus that is not on the map, it’s the sector.

"A very large number of young Arab women have temporary, part־time jobs in the commercial sector and the service industries and are not eligible for unemployment benefits. In the Arab sector, most business are small ones that, for thousands of reasons unconnected to the coronavirus, barely stay afloat. The corona epidemic will be the death knell for many of these businesses."

"Do you really think that Arab towns are free of corona?" Aiman Saif, who headed the Authority for the Economic Development of the Minority Sectors from 2008 to 2018, is very perturbed. "The reason for this is very simple. There is no testing for the coronavirus in the Arab sector. Do you know why? Because Magen David Adom has a monopoly on testing, and unfortunately, it doesn’t operate or even come to Arab towns. Private companies provide these services."

"This is a very dangerous situation, and I believe that it will blow up in our faces. We are talking about two million citizens. I am convinced that if testing was permitted in the Arab sector, we would unfortunately discover a not insignificant number of cases. But in the meantime, no one is taking care of this."

In his role in the public sector, Saif was very active in promoting economic projects such as setting up a private equity fund for the private sector and promoting women’s employment. He is not surprised by what he sees as just another example of the state’s discriminatory treatment of Arab society to the point of complete disregard. Saif notes two more acute parameters. The first is indifference to the virus among Israeli Arabs, especially the younger generation. The second is the inability of Arab local authorities, which are among the weakest and poorest in Israel, to support their residents during a crisis. Add this all together and you have the recipe for a catastrophe.

Aiman Saif. Photo: idi.org.il

"To ensure that the Arab sector internalized the guidelines for coronavirus, the government should have paid specific attention to this sector and spoken with the people. The government did not address Arab society directly and did not initially include the Arabs when giving out instructions. As a result, Arab society is not updated and does not sufficiently understand the gravity of the problem."

How could they have missed this?

"The emergency addresses that are broadcast constantly on all the Israeli television stations to all Israeli homes do not reach everyone in the Arab sector. There is a large gap between the data and information conveyed in the Israeli and the Arab sectors."

How would you define the current situation?

"Very worrying. First, there is a certain amount of complacency in Arab society, especially among the younger generation. Until a few days ago, the cafes and entertainment centers in the Arab towns were full of young people. The situation has since improved and the police have begun closing places down. However, the sense of complacency still remains."

Ramadan will be especially difficult

Saif, who holds postgraduate degrees in business administration and international planning and development, is now an economic consultant, entrepreneur, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. He warns that the Arab sector will be hit even harder than the general public by the economic crisis predicted to follow the coronavirus, because many Israeli Arabs work in the commercial and service sectors and do not receive social benefits.

"A very large number of young Arab women have temporary, part־time, jobs in the commercial sector and the service industries and are not eligible for unemployment benefits. In the Arab sector, most business are small ones that, for thousands of reasons unconnected to the coronavirus, barely stay afloat. The corona epidemic will be the death knell for many of these businesses."

"The situation is catastrophic. Most of the local authorities are not prepared for emergency situations and it will be very difficult for them to provide basic services for their residents. Of the 82 local authorities in the Arab sector, 55 don’t have a 106 municipal hotline so residents can’t even contact them."

And if all this is not difficult enough, Ramadan begins next month on April 23. The customary visits to friends and family will not take place this year. "Ramadan usually involves increased spending. Although people fast during the day, they spend a lot of money on the evening meal. There is normally a sharp increase in expenditure on food and gifts during this month because of all the visits. However, this year people will not have the money to spend on gifts and luxury items and this will have an adverse effect on the Arab commercial sector which usually benefits from the Ramadan festivities."

Can the Arab local authorities help residents at all at present?

"The situation is catastrophic. Most of the local authorities are not prepared for emergency situations and it will be very difficult for them to provide basic services to residents. Of the 82 local authorities in the Arab sector, 55 don’t have a 106 municipal hotline so residents can’t even contact them. Moreover, the emergency aid measures for businesses include a reduction in municipal taxes, and this will hit the local authorities with reduced income. The authorities don’t have any reserves or savings from previous years. If the government does not step in and provide assistance, the damage to the local authorities will be very severe.

What should the government be doing to help the Arab sector?

"The government should be providing help to all of Israeli society not just the Arab sector. From what I have seen so far, the measures that the government has announced are totally insufficient. If you compare them to the measures announced in Germany, France, the UK, and the United States, it is like the difference between heaven and earth. In Germany, 15% of the GDP has been allocated to economic assistance, and in France they are talking about 12%. I am certain that money will be poured into the commercial sector in the United States. Why is this not happening here?"

"Let me give you an example. We were told that they will implement a fund for state־backed guaranteed loans to businesses to ensure that businesses have a cash flow. But, this fund already exists and is already in operation, so nothing new is being provided. What’s more, whoever takes a loan from the fund will pay interest of prime plus 3.5% which is very, very expensive. By comparison, businesses in Germany and the United States were given interest־free loans."

"Gantz made a terrible mistake"

It seems like ages ago due to the corona crisis that has put all of humanity on the defensive regarding its vulnerability, but we should recall that only a few weeks ago, Israelis voted in their third elections within a year and the Joint List received an unprecedented 15 seats. However, we should not forget that during the election campaign, the Arab sector and its representatives were attacked and not only by the right wing of the political map.

How do you analyze the Joint List’s achievement? Was this a protest vote?

"I don’t know whether this was a protest vote. The Joint List is very popular now among the Arab population and also among Jews. There is no longer any other democratic movement that talks about coexistence, equality, and human rights."

"This time the Joint List presented a united front and the dialogue was also different. It was the general public that first began talking in a different language and not the leaders. The Arab public said: ‘We want to have an influence, we no longer want to sit on the sidelines and be spectators in the political game.’ According to surveys, 80% of the Arab public were in favor of joining some kind of a coalition. The Joint List’s leaders understood this, acted accordingly, and received substantial support."

"An additional reason for the Joint List’s increased representation is that none of the Zionist parties spoke to Arab society as equals or expressed for respect the Arab sector. Even Meretz and the Labor Party, which are considered very close to the Arab sector, demoted their Arab candidate, Issawi Frej, to the unrealistic 11th place on their list. The 40,000 votes that Meretz received from the Arab sector in the first and second elections moved over as one block to the Joint List."

"The prime minister calls the Joint List ‘supporters of terrorism’ and forgets that the people who elected these ‘supporters of terrorism’ are from the Arab sector. So does that mean that the Arab sector also supports terrorism? What about the Arab doctors and nurses who stand at the forefront of the war against corona? This kind of talk is divisive. Enough."

"I don’t even want to talk about Blue and White, who took no notice of us at all and even made inflammatory statements against Arab society. Benny Gantz made a terrible mistake; he could have brought a new style of dialogue that I believe would have appealed to part of the Arab population. The Likud is the same Likud we are familiar with, the party that incites about ‘supporters of terrorism’ and is full of very, very racist talk."

How does Arab society accept the delegitimization of the Joint List?

"It is insulting, damaging, and difficult to hear. People in Arab society think that it is also unfair because in recent years, we have made significant progress in integrating in Israeli society. This probably began in the medical field, but we will soon also be seeing integration in high tech. And despite this, when it comes to politics, we are suddenly pariahs in the eyes of everyone including Blue and White."

"Even though all 15 Joint List MKs recommended Benny Gantz for prime minister, he seems to have got cold feet and is leaning toward a unity government. Unfortunately, PM Netanyahu is trying to drive a wedge between the Joint List and the Arab public. He calls the Joint List ‘supporters of terrorism’ and forgets that the people who elected these ‘supporters of terrorism’ are from the Arab sector. So does that mean that the Arab sector also supports terrorism? What about the Arab doctors and nurses who stand at the forefront of the war against corona? This kind of talk is divisive. Enough. The elections are over and there is now a completely legitimate party that has to be included in the discussions."

Do you recommend the Joint List to play the political game?

"I certainly do. They need to meet with all sides to see what they can gain from each one. There is no reason why they shouldn’t also meet with Likud, even though there is no realistic option for the Joint List to support a government headed by Netanyahu.