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In Israel, Ramadan could be an opportunity for cooperation

A Palestinian family in Gaza wearing protective masks prays on the first night of Ramadan in their home because of the closure of mosques due to coronavirus restrictions, April 23, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

By Shira Rubin

TEL AVIV — On Friday, April 24, the first day of Ramadan, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was virtually empty. A handful of masked worshippers kneeling on prayer rugs, distanced several feet apart from one another, listened to an imam who stood atop an 18-foot wooden pulpit.

“We ask G-d to have mercy on us and all of humanity and to save us from this lethal pandemic,” the imam said.

The ban on mass communal prayer in Israel and the Palestinian territories is among the sobering restrictions accompanying Islam’s holiest month, during which Muslims fast during daylight hours and typically pray, feast and socialize with extended families at night.

Israel’s emergency coronavirus measures have closed mosques, shuttered shops and implemented nighttime curfews in many Muslim- majority cities.

But many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens say it’s nowhere near enough. Ahead of the month-long holiday, a period during which families often celebrate together in the dozens or hundreds, most Arab-Israeli towns and villages fear a coronavirus peak is still ahead — and some are making an unprecedented plea for more Israeli government intervention.

Requests have gone out for help from bodies normally regarded in his town with suspicion: the Israeli police and the army. More patrol cars, more Home Front Command soldiers to deliver groceries to the elderly, and other forms of manpower to break up large and potentially dangerous Ramadan gatherings.

Despite the challenges, Abu Rass thinks this time could lead to increased cooperation between Arabs and the Israeli government.

Thabet Abu Rass is a resident of the central village of Qalansuwa in central Israel and the co-executive director of Abraham Initiatives, an NGO that promotes Jewish-Arab partnerships.

In a Facebook campaign, Abu Rass praised the official Israeli directive for all stores, except for pharmacies, in Muslim-majority towns to remain closed from six p.m. to three a.m. throughout the month of Ramadan.

“Arabs are knocking on the doors of the country, struggling for equality and integration,” he said. “This is an opportunity to build trust.”

The Purim example

The pandemic hit Arab-Israeli cities and towns some three weeks later than the rest of Israel, and it remains relatively contained there for now, according to government data. Israel in total has reported more than 15,400 cases of COVID-19 and 202 deaths.

There are 809 confirmed cases among the Arab population, according to the emergency committee monitoring the coronavirus crisis in Israel’s Arab community — but that not include mixed Jewish-Arab cities or eastern Jerusalem, which is home to more than 350,000 Arabs.

The Purim holiday, which brings Jewish communities together for a night of feasting and partying, has been identified as a key spreader of the virus among Jews around the world. It took place in early March, just as the COVID-19 virus was picking up speed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used that evidence as justification for locking down the country on the eve of Passover last month.

A “war room” in the northern Arab town of Shfaram hosts daily discussions between the Committee of Arab Mayors and Ayman Sayyaf, head of the Interior Ministry’s Coronavirus Directorate for the Arab population.

Following a meeting of Netanyahu and municipal leaders from large Arab towns, the ministry announced on April 23 that Israel would distribute an emergency aid package of 55 million shekels (about $15.6 million, including 30 million shekels in food coupons) to 73 Arab local authorities.

“We want, first and foremost, to safeguard your lives,” Netanyahu said April 24 in a Ramadan video tweet.

“For the sake of saving your lives and for the sake of your loved ones, and for your and everyone’s future, celebrate with your nuclear family, and only with them.”

Testing, however, remains few and far between, with only a handful of mobile clinics dispersed throughout Arab areas.

“Our estimations show that we have fewer infections than in the Jewish sector, but I hope we’re not deluding ourselves,” Mamoun Abd Alhay, the mayor of the Arab town of Tira, told Channel 12 News in early April.

New epicenters of contagion are emerging. Among them is Deir Alassad, an impoverished village in the Galilee. The town’s first coronavirus-related death was reported on Sunday, April 26.

The likelihood of infection within an extended family is particularly acute among Arabs, who live alongside several generations within a single household, especially in traditional villages.

A report by the Israeli Health Ministry found that in the northern cities of Umm al-Fahm and Jisr al-Zarqa, 78% of confirmed coronavirus cases were within the same family, while smaller communities like Bir al-Maksur and Maghar found 100% of the cases within the same family.

But Abu Rass said that as Israel loosens its restrictions in the coming weeks, it could exacerbate an already simmering restlessness among Muslims who are entering their third month of lockdown.

There is also the economic angle: About half of all Arab Israelis live under the poverty line and all have a lower life expectancy than their Jewish neighbors.

With the long-term risks in mind, Hanady Azoni, a bakery owner in the central Arab town of Jaljuliya, said that most of his neighbors are committed to social distancing over the holiday.

“We are not ready to deal with this kind of crisis,” he said.

Since March, the Muslim Islamic authorities have made the “painful” decision to keep the gates of the Al-Aqsa Mosque closed to worshippers, according to a statement by the Jerusalem Waqf, which oversees management of the compound.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, Muhammad Hussein, advised against the public sighting of the crescent moon, which is used to estimate the start of the holy month.

Via WhatsApp groups, communities are rolling out piecemeal campaigns to get news updates and instructions, and organize food deliveries to those who must go into quarantine. But with often shoddy internet connections and mostly an internet-averse elderly population, the message isn’t always delivered.

Since the coronavirus lockdown began last month, domestic violence has risen in the Arab community and many children have also stopped receiving education, as a third of Arab-Israeli children don’t own the computers needed for remote learning.

Despite the challenges, Abu Rass thinks this time could lead to increased cooperation between Arabs and the Israeli government.

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