Many Cases, Little Enforcement: Israeli Arab Society in 'Disbelief' Over COVID Risks

A mere month after his appointment to lead coronavirus response in Arab communities, Ayman Saif has already come close to resigning. In an interview, he calls for deterrence and 'lifestyle changes'

Jack Khoury
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Ayman Saif in his home in Ar'ara, 2018.
Ayman Saif in his home in Ar'ara, 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Jack Khoury

The man responsible for fighting the coronavirus in Arab communities, Ayman Saif, found himself in the eye of the storm in recent weeks. High infection rates have raised questions about the ability of Arab local authorities to enforce regulations, given the lack of effective mechanisms and absence of resources.

Saif admits, in an interview with Haaretz, that he considered resigning if the government or a ministerial committee decided to impose a lockdown on “red” communities. The decision to impose a nighttime curfew is satisfactory, as far as he’s concerned. He describes government decisions as supportive, with the goals being changes in patterns of behavior and adoption of a lifestyle compatible with the coronavirus. Nothing else will help, he says.

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He describes the rate of infection in Arab communities as grave. “We account for 30 percent of confirmed new cases every day, and this is very dangerous,” says Saif. He says most of the infections during this second wave stem from a drop in deterrence, which has declined particularly in Arab society. This is accompanied by non-compliance with Health Ministry directives due to the rapid return to normal routine, which has led to large gatherings, especially at weddings, which have become a major source of infection.

Saif points to complacency and a lack of awareness of the risks of coronavirus. “The complacency leads to disbelief that there is a risk facing Arab society or that the disease can be fatal. The state must deliver deterrent messages and impose much more effective enforcement,” he says.

But he stresses that enforcement should be much more effective not just in Arab society but throughout the country. “One should remember that there are people without masks on [Tel Aviv’s] Rothschild Boulevard and on the beaches as well, and the police aren’t there, and there is no doubt that enforcement and deterrence are required. But this won’t help if lifestyles in Arab society don’t change, with adaptations made for coronavirus, since the danger lies among us. No deterrence or information will help if internal changes don’t happen, with an internalization of the message that there is a danger in spreading the disease.”

Saif confirms that he considered resigning last week in the event that a lockdown was imposed on “red” towns, most of which are Arab. “A total closure means a harsh economic blow that would be unbearable in these communities. We haven’t recovered yet from the first wave [lockdown] and now they want another round. I thought that there should be restrictions in the evening hours and at night, in order to block gatherings at weddings and other venues. If you want a lockdown on dozens of communities, this should apply everywhere.” When asked whether a lockdown was imminent, Saif said that this was probable if infection rates continued to climb.

Saif dismissed out of hand criticism that links the rise in infections with his conduct as the person responsible for handling the epidemic in Arab communities. “I’ve only been at this job for three or four weeks, after coronavirus had spread and was peaking. It’s unrelated to personal management, and I can’t be blamed for failure after such a short tenure. I was called on to help and I’m doing so out of care for Arab society, to help state institutions and Arab society halt the disease. I wasn’t home doing nothing; I have my work and projects; I wasn’t looking for work; I wanted to help. I know there is criticism but I also have the trust of local authority heads whom I meet very frequently, as well as the trust of [coronavirus chief] Professor Gamzu and the minister of health. As long as I feel I can help, I’ll continue.”

Saif agrees with the working assumption that the epidemic has uncovered all the flaws relating to enforcement mechanisms in Arab society. “In Arab communities, municipal oversight is practically non-existent. We don’t have such mechanisms, which is why the police must handle enforcement and work harder in order to enforce regulations related to the epidemic. In any case, much of the responsibility is personal and collective.”

He adds that the voice of Arab society is almost unheard around the cabinet table. “I voice my positions and hold consultations with professionals, but in comparison with other populations, it’s clear that official Arab representation is not present when decisions are made.”

Saif believes that compliance with directives and an increase in disseminated information, along with enforcement, will halt the spread of infections. There is an urgent need for setting up an infrastructure of municipal enforcement in Arab communities, as well for promoting and constructing emergency facilities, but this requires government assistance. “There is room for an entire emergency network; we’ve started helping some local authorities and civic non-governmental organizations in setting up such facilities, but this requires state resources,” he says.

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