With Ramadan Approaching, Pressure Builds Up in Israeli Arab City Fearing a Spike in Coronavirus Cases

Residents of Umm al-Fahm, as well as city officials and police, are aware that the worst is yet to come

Jack Khoury
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People stand in line at the post office in Israeli Arab city Umm al-Fahm, Aril 14, 2020
People stand in line at the post office in Israeli Arab city Umm al-Fahm, Aril 14, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush
Jack Khoury

There was a long line outside the main post office in Umm al-Fahm. A few dozen people stood closer together than social-distancing rules allow. Radha al-Halou was among them, armed with gloves and a face mask. “Making an appointment by phone doesn’t really help, you still have to wait in line,” he complained. “People aren’t keeping their distance at all, but at least most have masks and gloves. I hope they’ll be enough."

Halou says the situation is quite common in the city, and that people fear crowding in stores as Ramadan approaches. The holy month will begin on the evening of April 23. “I’d at least expect someone to keep things organized at the entrance [to the post office]," he said.

A few meters away, customers waited outside a Mercantile Bank branch. A security guard let a few people in. Others came for the ATM outside. “There’s no pressure inside, but at the entrance, near the ATM, the pressure is palpable,” said a man named Ahmad, explaining that he came from Nazareth to withdraw cash.

Umm al-Fahm had 48 confirmed COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, more than any other Arab community in the country. Second is Jisr al-Zarqa with 46 cases, followed by Rahat with 30. These numbers are expected to change when results arrive from tests conducted in other cities, particularly in Deir al-Asad, where infections have spiked.

Police enforcing coronavirus regulations in the Israel Arab city Umm al-Fahm, April 15, 2020
Police enforcing coronavirus regulations in the Israel Arab city Umm al-Fahm, April 15, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

The mayor of Umm al-Fahm, Samir Mahamid, says the city, in coordination with the police, has set up an emergency team to monitor developments in the situation. A number of roadblocks have been erected at the main entrance to the city, as well as at major intersections. However, city officials fear that not everyone who has been in contact with patients is in isolation. Only 46 city residents are supposed to be in isolation: Much too low a figure given the number of confirmed cases.

Two police officers and two city inspectors are stationed at the main entrance to Umm al-Fahm. They admit that despite the directives there is still traffic in the city. Ahmed Mahamid, of the nearby village of Mu’awiya, waits at the checkpoint. “I have no problem with them checking, it’s very important and good to do so, but at the end of the day, as you can see, I’m in work clothes. I have to earn a living,” he said. “We recognize the danger on the one hand, but on the other it’s impossible to sit at home and do nothing, especially for someone who has no other way to support himself. I go out with a mask and gloves, and hope for the best,” he said.

Fearing that the need to bring in money would increase the number of residents borrowing money from loan sharks, city officials issued warnings against the practice. The city’s people's committee, which includes representatives from the community’s clans and families, called for increased supervision and enforcement of the emergency regulations this week. On Wednesday the committee met with the city’s chief of police, stressing the importance of enforcing the closure of nonessential businesses to him.

Members of the emergency coronavirus committee for Israel’s Arab community, which includes experts and representatives from local governments, did not hide their apprehension about the coming week. According to the committee’s figures, which are based on those of the Health Ministry, as of Wednesday morning there were 418 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Arab community. That number does not include cities with a mixed Jewish-Arab population or Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The committee said it is expecting a dramatic increase in the number of cases once the results of Wednesday’s tests are received.

A man sells vegetables in Umm al-Fahm, April 15, 2020
A man sells vegetables in Umm al-Fahm, April 15, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

The chairman of the Forum of the Heads of Arab Local Authorities, Mudar Younis, who is also the head of the Ara and Arara local councils, said that at this stage he and his colleagues are not calling for a general closure of Arab communities, but if infection rates continued to climb and if residents were not compliant, more drastic measures would be unavoidable. Officials in Arab communities said, however, that they lack the tools to introduce such measures without the support of the Israel Police and of the Interior Ministry.

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