Large Weddings Blamed for Sharp Rise in Coronavirus Rate Among Israeli Arabs

Local authorities in Arab communities warn residents against holding large gatherings near their homes

Jack Khoury
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A wedding ceremony takes place in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020.
A wedding ceremony takes place in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush
Jack Khoury

When the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic hit in spring, Sami el-Ali and Ghanem Mahmid thought it would fade away within weeks and that their wedding would take place in July.

The couple from Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, had initially scheduled a wedding for last month, but when the pandemic erupted they had to postpone it by several weeks and completely change the arrangements.

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The plan was for a large event. “We had 3,500 guests planned from the village alone, not counting all the [other] people we were inviting,” Sami says.

It is common for Arab weddings to be large and involve several ceremonies spread over the span of a week, which requires a lot of planning. Usually the main ceremony is held on a weekend, but many people tend to crowd around the family’s home, far from the prying eyes of the social distancing monitors. 

The rules for the reopening after the lockdown in early May required the couple to move the main event to Sami’s home as well, reduce the guest list by breaking it down into separate lists, and extend the time allotted for the receiving line. 

Sami said the new conditions meant he had to “stand for nine hours, welcome the guests and host them for a meal. It’s not easy. It’s more like a workday rather than a wedding day,” he says.

A wedding ceremony takes place in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020.
A wedding ceremony takes place in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

He explains why the event had to be held despite the pandemic fears, saying “you can’t just cancel the whole thing and do nothing. Love and joy are stronger than corona and life triumphs in the end. Even if we didn’t have a big wedding – and you have to follow the rules – the main thing is to be happy and rejoice.”

Manal Yakoub of Haifa, whose son Julian was supposed to wed with 700 guests invited to a large banquet hall, says her family had been planning the event for a year.

“With the first wave, the hesitations began,” she says. “And when we returned to normal we started planning it for July 11, reducing the guest list to 250.”

A few days after they handed out invitations, the government decision was made to shut down the banquet halls again.

“It was very difficult and in the end we held a small ceremony at a church, with members of the immediate family,” Manal says. Instead of the banquet hall, they celebrated at the entrance to their home, which they converted into a small banquet space. “On the one hand you have to stick to the rules and on the other, guests come to congratulate you, and you have to receive them.”

Guests attend a wedding ceremony in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020.
Guests attend a wedding ceremony in Jisr al-Zarqa, near Hadera, July 16, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

Leaders of the Arab community, doctors, and other health workers are warning that the weddings, alongside funerals, are incubators for the spread of the virus, especially in Arab communities. The number of active cases among Arabs, including in Druze towns, is on a steep rise, and by Thursday morning numbered about 25 per 10,000 people.

“The data speaks for itself,” says Ahmed Asheikh of the Arab emergency committee, pointing to how in the current wave the number of cases among women is higher. He says this is the reason why in March and April most of those who caught the virus caught it at work, where Arab women are present in relatively low numbers, while now the virus is spreading more from inside the community, from the weddings and funerals.

Local council heads in Wadi Ara held an emergency meeting this week about fears of a bigger outbreak due to the large numbers of weddings and Eid al-Adha events scheduled for the end of the month. They issued a joint statement urging residents “to behave responsibly, be disciplined and stick to the rules, not to hold large parties and events outside their homes. We mustn’t make light of this, the virus spreads quickly and doesn’t discriminate on the basis of towns or communities or individuals.” 

Umm al-Fahm Mayor Samir Mahamid said of the weddings, “When a town has a banquet hall, you as a local authority can control it and make demands of the owner, but what can you do if the groom holds court in the yard outside his home? We don’t want to create conflict with our citizens but sometimes we have no choice but to get involved, and even call the police, even though they don’t hurry to get involved.” 

The head of the Kafr Kara local council, lawyer Firas Badha, added, “Everyone knows everyone, and we all know who is organizing a big home wedding and who goes there.” 

Rahat’s mayor, Fayiz Abu Sahiban, took a more aggressive tone, saying he would cooperate with police to ramp up enforcement against those who violate the rules.

Senior clerics, however, urged that police involvement be limited to extreme cases, and to rely instead on individual discipline and do more explaining about how to prevent the virus’ spread. 

Dr. Mohammed Salameh of the Institute for Islamic Research and Sharia Law told Haaretz, “The confused instructions, disinformation and atmosphere of fear of the first wave have led to a lot of distrust on the part of the community. Therefore we have issued an explicit call to everyone that there are no violations of religion or sharia in holding a minimal-size wedding. We don’t need the police to be a part of the scenery, where they will barge in in the middle of an event. Everyone knows that in such a situation the enforcement will not be thorough but selective, which will only raise tensions.”

The police said it is focusing on curbing the spread of the virus and enforcing quarantines, averting gatherings, ensuring masks are worn and that businesses are operating according to the rules.

“To the extent that the police learn of a significant violation on the property of an individual that requires intervention, the police operate according to its authorities under the law to handle the issue.” 

But police officers acknowledge that handling situations at private homes is “complex and sensitive,” and say residents don’t hasten to report on their neighbors violating rules, and therefore most of the police operations are explanatory.

Northern District Police reported a series of incidents in which action was taken in several Galilee towns, including I’billin, Sakhnin, and Dabburiya, such as one in which a singer was fined 10,000 shekels ($2,900) for performing, as well as fines on venue owners. At the request of police, a well-known singer from Jenin in the West Bank who drew a large audience in I’billin had his entry permit revoked and was ordered to return home. 

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