Muslim clergy, mayors of Arab communities and Arab social activists in Israel are afraid of accelerating the spread of COVID-19 during the holy month of Ramadan starting at the end of this week, many of them supporting strickter restrictions on the public during this period.
Over the last few days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Arye Dery and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have held discussions on the matter because of the potential large gatherings in mosques and other places of worship, at meal gatherings to break the daily fast and family visits – as well as expected heavy movement of people in Arab communities in the evenings.
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On Sunday, Erdan met with Arab mayors and a few proposals were raised in an attempt to reduce the spread of the coronavirus during Ramadan. It was proposed to approve emergency regulations intended specifically for the month as was done for the Passover holiday, which would include a ban on opening sweets and food stores in the evening, along with taking action to prevent gatherings. Erdan told the mayors that the ministerial committee on the coronavirus crisis will meet on Monday to discuss the proposals and will examine the possibility of issuing special regulations for the month of Ramadan.
The mayors said the fact that the government eased restrictions over the weekend on movement could lead to the Arab community not listening to the stricter instructions. The head of the local council in Ara and Arara and the chairman of the council of Arab communities, Mudar Yunis, told Haaretz that most mayors expressed support for more severe restrictions on the Arab public. Yunis said that some mayors asked to restrict the opening hours for stores in their towns, including those that provide essential services and goods, especially in the early evening before the meal to break the fast, which is held after sundown, in an attempt to keep people from gathering.
Many senior Muslim clergymen expressed reservations about the instructions the government released as part of easing the restrictions. For example, it allowed prayer services in open areas at a distance of up to 500 meters from people’s homes or in workplaces, with up to 19 people present – as long as a distance of at least two meters was kept between worshippers.
Dr. Mohammed Salameh of the institute for Islamic legal rulings and research told Haaretz that the new instructions could confuse clergymen and sheikhs in mosques, who have already announced that people should pray at home during Ramadan with only their immediate families present. “There are mosques that do not have open spaces, and if even if there are, who will decide which 19 people will enter? For clergymen this is a task that will only increase the tensions and so it is important that the messages be cleared up in this context,” he added.
The clergy have made it clear that the mosques will remain closed and all the prayer services, including the mass prayers that are held every evening after the meal to break the fast, will be held at home with only a limited number of family members, said Salameh. There are religious legal rulings on this matter from the most prestigious clergy in Israel and around the world, for the good of public health there is no need to come to the mosques at such a time, he added.
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The council of imams in Israel agrees with this ruling and warned of the implications of permitting group worship of up to 19 people – and called on its member imams not to hold such services if they cannot guarantee that all the limitations required can be kept properly – whether the number of people present, the distance between them and the wearing of face masks during prayer. The decision to close the mosques in Arab communities followed the decision to close the mosques in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, as well as the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Arab mayors and public health experts have also expressed a fear that people going out to buy food and sweets during Ramadan will lead to crowding in stores and shopping centers, and this will help spread the virus. Dr. Mohammed Khatib, an expert in public health and a member in the emergency headquarters established in the Arab community to address the COVID-19 outbreak, told Haaretz that in addition to the closing of the mosques, the biggest challenges are expected to be stores and family gatherings. “This is not a simple challenge, there are customs that have been with the community for many years and suddenly they need to stop everything,” said Khatib.
The mayor of Umm al-Fahm, Dr. Samir Mahamid, told Haaretz that unrelated to the instructions the government may issue, outdoor booths will not be allowed to open this year in his city. The city is examining a proposal to allow the opening of stores during certain hours of the day, and ban opening them in the evening. “We think people can shop during the day and there is no need for everyone to gather in the evening, which will endanger everyone,” said Mahamid.
Arab towns asked the Public Security and Interior ministries to help them with funding because of the high expenses that will accumulate to operate the groups who patrol the streets instead of the police, and to provide services to the less well-off population in light of the high number of unemployed because of the crisis. Mahamid said the number of families needing help – in Umm al-Fahm alone – has risen from 650 to over 1,100.
A few Arab municipalities issued warnings to the public concerning taking out loans in the gray and black markets because of their financial plight, and especially because of their heavy expenditures during the month of Ramadan. Dr. Nasreen Haj Yahya, a senior lecturer at the Sakhnin College and a family therapist, said the spread of the coronavirus has had a major impact on many Arab families, some of whom have lost their livelihoods and are in a state of stress and uncertainty.
She warned of domestic violence against women during these times. “Ramadan is a special month of prayers and spirituality, which is meant to strengthen the core of the family and tolerance. The latest changes on a social, community and economic level can lead to great pressure that could well break out in the form of increased violence, and I hope that all the relevant bodies in the government and local governments are aware of it,” said Haj Yahya.