While Israel Slowly Opens Up, Ramadan Brings Confusion and Unease to Arab Communities

Local leaders urge compliance with tougher coronavirus restrictions for the Muslim holy month, while limitations in the country as a whole are being eased

Jack Khoury
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A man hangs decorations for the upcoming holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's old City, April 21, 2020
A man hangs decorations for the upcoming holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's old City, April 21, 2020Credit: Reuter/ Ammar Awad
Jack Khoury

The Israeli government eased its coronavirus crisis restrictions on Friday, with most changes set to come into effect on Saturday night, two days after the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Many in the Arab community are concerned that the decision may lead some of its members to show a lax attitude toward the regulations aimed at stemming the virus’ spread.

During the past week, the government has approved regulations banning gatherings in Arab towns and cities, and religious leaders called on Muslims to pray at home. But many people queued outside food shops on Friday and the streets in many communities were busy.

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The crowds emerged despite an emergency order to keep shops in Muslim-majority communities shut from 6 P.M. every evening – before preparations for the iftar meal – until 3 A.M. the next morning.

In a side-street candy shop in Nazareth, a dozen customers were waiting for fresh qatayef dough to come out of the oven. They weren’t all wearing protective face masks. “I don’t know if we can stay another month at home,” said one of those in line, Ahmed. “On the one hand they say they’re easing [restrictions], but on the other hand they want limitations for 30 days. It’s impossible.”

People stand in front of the Damascus gate as it is decorated for Ramadan during the night-time curfew to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Jerusalem, April 21, 2020Credit: Reuters/ Ammar Awad

Mohammed Barakah, chairman of the Arab Monitoring Committee, cautioned on Saturday against a feared “disaster” if the public didn’t follow instructions. He said many residents had told him they had seen many gatherings outside grocers and candy shops. He added that the economic effects of opening commercial centers in open areas could be destructive for local businesses, as residents may shop in those areas rather than in their own communities.

“Food purchases should be made inside communities and according to instructions, and we urged business owners not to take advantage of the situation by raising prices,” he said.

The decision to set rules in Arab communities was backed by local government heads in Nazareth, Umm el-Fahm, Rahat and Taibe. They rejected criticism that the decision was made hastily without consulting experts.

“We understand the pain felt by business owners, but on the other hand, we are talking about public health. There’s no reason people shouldn’t stock up during the day and early evening,” Umm el-Fahm Mayor Dr. Samir Mahamid said.

Police enforce coronavirus restrictions at the entrance to the town of Shfaram, April 24, 2020.Credit: Rami Chelouche

Joint List MK Iman Khatib objected to the restrictions. “On Passover there weren’t full closure orders imposed for up to 10 days and those celebrating had time to organize without violating the rules to avoid gatherings or crowds, and to confine their celebrations to the nuclear family. The month of Ramadan merits the same treatment," Khatib wrote in a statement addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

The Arab Emergency Committee said the easing of restrictions signaled the end of the crisis while the Arab community is at a critical point, and needing to stick to the rules. At the start of the weeks 20 Arab communities were described as coronavirus-free, but toward the end of the week that number dropped to 14 and there is a trend toward an uptick in infection. As of the weekend, the number of those infected in Arab communities (excluding mixed cities and East Jerusalem) was close to 800.

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