Israel didn’t publish coronavirus guidance in Arabic — so Palestinians stepped in

Weeks after the coronavirus outbreak began, Israel's Health Ministry had yet to publish Arabic guidance on its website. Palestinian civil society is changing that.

A woman having a fever test as she enters the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital, Jerusalem, September 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A woman having a fever test as she enters the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital, Jerusalem, September 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Up until a week ago, the official website, Facebook page, and messenger group of Israel’s Health Ministry barely contained a single word in Arabic on the outbreak of the novel coronavirus across the country.

MK Sami Abu Shehadeh (Joint List) sent a letter to Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on March 8, demanding that all information on the outbreak be made readily available to Israel’s Arab citizens. “Unfortunately, most of the information that is published in Hebrew alone and on the Health Ministry’s website and social networks, it is only partially published in Arabic,” Abu Shehadeh wrote. “Thus, for instance, in the last day, there have been eight different updates in Hebrew on the Ministry’s Facebook page, while there has not been a single update in Arabic.”

Following Abu Shehadeh’s letter, members of the Joint List, mayors, and heads of Arab local councils, and NGOs joined in demanding that all coronavirus-related information published by the Health Ministry be made available in Arabic. “It began with not making the information available to the Arab public,” said Abu Shehadeh, “but it turns out that the Education Ministry and the Transportation Ministry haven’t published a thing in Arabic.”

Abu Shehadeh said that Arab leaders worked with Adalah, a Haifa-based legal center that focuses on the rights of Palestinian citizens, to send letters to all the ministries and began the process of petitioning the High Court of Justice. “We were able to get results, but it is not enough. There is still a gap between what is published in Arabic and Hebrew. Meanwhile, the Joint List is working with the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee on the Arabic-language National Health Committee website.”

Muhammad Barakeh, who chairs the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, an extra-parliamentary body that represents Arab citizens of Israel and coordinates activities among various Palestinian groups in Israel, says establishing a site in Arabic had become a necessity. “We saw that there was a huge lack of information in Arabic on the coronavirus pandemic,” Barakeh said.

“The Health Ministry’s website did not include updates on the disease or what people can do to avoid it. They offered some information here and there, but it always came late or was insufficient. That is why we decided to establish something that will serve our public in its language and provide a response to the Health Ministry’s failure.

“We have the best doctors and experts in the medical field who regularly post updates,” Barakeh continued. “Every day we have thousands of visits to the site. People are using the site to ask doctors questions and we try to provide a response to everyone.”

The website includes videos for adults and children from across the Arab world, including the Gulf states.

A Palestinian woman cleans inside the Dome of the Rock prior to Friday prayers, due to fear of the coronavirus, Jerusalem, March 5, 2020. (M Nazir/Flash90)
A Palestinian woman cleans inside the Dome of the Rock prior to Friday prayers, due to fear of the coronavirus, Jerusalem, March 5, 2020. (M Nazir/Flash90)

“The failure isn’t only one of health, but also education. Arab schools are in poor shape when it comes to infrastructure and budgets, and now the distance learning has only compounded the crisis,” Barakeh added.

Atty. Aiah Haj Odeh from Adalah said she was surprised that it took only two days for every single ministry to respond to her urgent letters. “The websites of the ministries had no option for Arabic — only French or English,” she said. “I wondered how many French speakers there are in Israel while Arabic is the mother-tongue of 21 percent of the population, yet they did not have the option of choosing Arabic. We received a response according to which the State Attorney’s Office is now looking into the matter.”

Within two days, Odeh says, Adalah received a comprehensive, four-page letter from the Ministry of Health with accompanying documents on how they are trying to optimize their publications in Arabic, that they are aware of the fact that they have not published in Arabic, and the measures they are taking to make improvements on that front. “They even informed us that they had contracted a company to publish in Arabic,” says Odeh. “Although they have started to publish in Arabic, if you go to the websites of these ministries you will see the huge gap between the publications in Hebrew and Arabic.”

Odeh attributes the speed of the response to the government’s fear of legal action. “This epidemic does not differentiate between an Arab and Jew, everyone can get sick. Failure to provide the information will cost [the ministries] dearly in human life. ”

Following the letters from Adalah and Abu Shehadeh, the Health Ministry began last Sunday to publish content in Arabic, even preparing an explanatory video in which Dr. Zahi Said, deputy general manager of Clalit, one of Israel’s state-mandated health organizations, explains the how the virus works, its symptoms, and ways to prevent infection.

However, the gap between the number of publications on the coronavirus in Arabic and Hebrew, and the quality of materials in both languages, remains large. Furthermore, the official forms used by patients in isolation to report on trips abroad and back to Israel are still entirely in Hebrew.

This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.