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Lockdown for Israel's Poor and Business as Usual for the Rest

Hagai Amit
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A coronavirus testing station in the Israeli Arab town of  Umm al-Fahm.
A coronavirus testing station in the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. Credit: Rami Shllush
Hagai Amit

The residents of Kafr Qasem in Israel’s north are due to go into lockdown shortly. But while the town’s streets will go silent every night when the lockdown goes into force, at its industrial zones – Nof Haaretz and Lev Haaretz – it will be business as usual. Kafr Qasem is the only Arab community among the 40 “red” cities designed for a lockdown that is being subject to a partial closure.

The municipal taxes paid by the industrial zones generate a nice income for the town, but they mainly employ Jewish Israelis. As the government acts to rein in the spreading of the coronavirus, it is also illustrating just how much it has failed to raise the socioeconomic levels of its Arab and ultra-Orthodox populations.

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For the first time since the establishment of the state, Israel’s socioeconomic disparities are being translated into government directives that restrict the activities of ordinary citizens. Ronny Gamzu, the coronavirus czar, is imposing the lockdown based on each locality’s morbidity rates. But even if it isn’t his intention, in practice, he is engaging in socioeconomic discrimination.

Looking at the morbidity rates from this socioeconomic perspective, it’s clear that Gamzu had no choice but to retreat from his preference for a more comprehensive lockdown. The government’s decision to limit lockdown measures to nighttime was not based on medical considerations that the virus suddenly stops spreading at 5 A.M. every morning and lets people go to work, school and shops. It was based on the recognition that if low-income communities were subject to a total closure, the economic pain would be unbearable.

To put it bluntly, the Israelis who vote for Likud, the Joint List, United Torah Judaism and Shas are the ones who now face a nighttime curfew based on the decision taken by the cabinet on Tuesday. More particular, the towns where residents support the Joint List and the ultra-Orthodox parties are the ones being subject to a full curfew, while those where the closure is only partial are populated by non-Haredi Jews who tend to vote for right-wing parties. But the anger so far has been limited to the Haredi street, where, for example, some ultra-Orthodox leaders told their followers to ignore the “discriminatory” lockdown orders.

On the list of 40 towns and cities, you won’t any that vote Kahol Lavan. Neither will you find Yesh Atid or Meretz supporters, who live in places like Tel Aviv, Rishon Letzion and Ramat Hasharon. But you also won’t find cities with a government socioeconomic rating of more than five (on a scale of 1-10) on the list. As of next week, when the curfews begin, Israel’s upper-middle class will continue to shop and eat out as usual after 7 P.M.

Those in the country’s lower income brackets will be the ones who have to be in their homes from that hour and remain there until 5 A.M. the next morning. Even worse, their children won’t be attending school, leaving parents who can continue to go to their jobs without anyone to care for them. Children whose parents are at the top of the income ladder will go to classes as usual.

Examining the lockdown from the perspective of voting is relevant because the political establishment has one eye trained on an election, which will likely occur sometime in the next few months. For example, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, the Kahol Lavan leaders, were touring the country at the start of the week, paying particular attention to ultra-Orthodox areas. Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, is calling to resist government decisions while Naftali Bennett is calling repeated press conferences to slam the government’s policy failures.

Are we really going to be going to the polls? The answer depends on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that, in turn, depends on whether his lawyers are ready for the start of his trial in January and on preparations for the 2021 state budget.

After press time Tuesday night, the cabinet was due to meet over how to allocate the 11 billion shekel ($3.3 billion) budget increase for 2020. Finance Minister Yisrael Katz has promised the decision will be made by September 13.

Unfortunately, the 11 billion is not enough. The defense establishment is demanding 3.3 billion shekels, the Haredi parties 400 million, and Kahol Lavan wants aid for communities on the borders with Gaza and Lebanon and other purposes. Handicapped groups are demanding the last installment of an allowance increase be implemented. The demands exceed the 11 billion by about 2 billion.

And after that money has been distributed, the work is due to begin on the 2021 budget. Strategic Affairs Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen (Kahol Lavan) on Monday urged Katz to get a move on. “After two years of political and fiscal instability … it is important to begin on a clear economic and fiscal plan,” she wrote.

Katz is indeed likely to begin work on the budget, if for no other reason than to calm the international credit rating agencies, but it’s doubtful the budget will ever be approved. More than likely Netanyahu will use the December 23 deadline for the 2020 budget to disperse the Knesset and call an election.

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