Like many communities around the world, Palestinian citizens of Israel didn’t take the new coronavirus outbreak seriously in its early days. They carried on with their lives, mostly in denial — perhaps because of the slap in the face that was U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which now seems like a relic of the past century. But as the number of patients in Israel continued to climb, Palestinian citizens began to panic, especially given the scarcity of official information in Arabic.
This moment of crisis has inspired cooperation and solidarity among Palestinian citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population. Political activists as well as private citizens are enlisting to fight the virus and its impact on society — from donation drives, to online therapy sessions, to virtual skill-sharing classes.
Given the poor infrastructure in Arab cities and towns, the High Follow-Up Committee, an umbrella organization that represents the country’s Palestinian citizens, established a national health committee, enlisting top-quality doctors and medical experts to publish essential information. “The situation in Arab locales is one big disaster when it comes to emergencies,” says Mohammad Barakeh, the head of the High Follow-Up Committee. “Medical services in Arab villages are even worse than in third world countries.”
According to Barakeh, a national emergency committee will also be formed, to synchronize information and provide answers to municipalities and local councils. “There’s a lot of work with local authorities, on issues of health and education, so we decided to unite all these efforts under the same umbrella,” he says.
The organization will also operate a hotline for small business owners, adds Barakeh. “There are businesses in the Arab community that will not be able to land back on their feet, and we will also see a rise in unemployment,” he says.
Members of the Joint List, the slate uniting the Palestinian-led political parties in Israel, are also responding to the unfolding public health crisis. They intervened to bring back Palestinian students studying abroad (many of whom study medicine). In addition, Joint List MKs applied pressure on the state to provide budgets to Arab local authorities, which lack the means to combat the virus. The National Union of Arab Local Authorities also joined the fight.
Even the clergy are doing their part, especially after the decision to shutter mosques and churches. In East Jerusalem, mosques turn on their speakers every night and pray for the pandemic to end. Priests have taken service to the streets, thurible in hand swinging incense as they bless believers and their homes, and pray for peace.
‘The response exceeded our expectations’
In Haifa, Bilal Alhousari, a Haifa-based activist with Balad, the nationalist faction of the Joint List, started a donation drive to help the elderly and those in need. Soon, many volunteers joined him, some of whom are not associated with the party.
“We began two weeks ago,” recalls Alhousari. “A member of Balad works with the elderly, and she told us that there are many older Arabs who don’t have anyone to get them groceries or assist them. We immediately started organizing, and quickly came up with a list of 60 people who could use our help,” he says.
“Later, we received a request from al-Karameh School, which has many students from families in need, or whose parents are unemployed. In coordination with the principal, we selected 60 families, and announced the donation drive on Facebook. We asked for basic food items, like rice, oil, and canned foods, rather than money,” he adds.
The group also received a request from Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem under Israeli occupation. They delivered two truckloads of food to the church there, according to Alhousari.
Since Balad’s headquarters from the March election was still available and equipped with computers, he explains, they repurposed the space and asked people to send their care packages there. Volunteers helped however they could: one group worked on making lists, another put the donation packages together, and another delivered them.
“The response exceeded our expectations,” he says. “Butchers donated meat, grocers sent vegetables, and bakeries gave bread.”
One of the larger donation drives launched in response to the coronavirus is run by the southern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which established a national emergency committee providing legal and medical consultation, as well as psychological and welfare assistance. The Movement has enlisted 120 experts for this purpose, and the hotline is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. to midnight. The Movement has also delivered 30,000 food packages for families in need. In Ramadan, which is set to begin in late April, the emergency committee plans to add 10,000 more boxes.
In the northern city of Shefa-‘Amr, various solidarity initiatives have cropped up, says political activist Murad Haddad. What started as a volunteer-run donation drive is now a municipal project.
Ramy Anabtawi, a nurse and resident of the city, also started a mobile health clinic, assisting people with injections, measuring their temperatures, and checking their blood pressure — whatever will save people a trip to the hospital, explains Anabtawi. In four days, 100 nurses and doctors teamed up with him. Now, they want to expand nationwide, so that every area can have access to a similar group of experts, he adds.
“It’s in our blood, for those of us who are care providers. We have a need to give,” says Anabtawi. “It’s clear to us that we are not a priority for the state. This is why we need to help each other.”
The Association of Arab Psychologists in Israel, established in 1999, is also lending a hand. “Our nonprofit is independent, it’s not associated with the national union of psychologists. We understood that we can’t accept a place in the margins of Israeli psychology groups, and sought to speak in our own language,” explains Yoad Janadri, who now runs the organization. In two days, 78 colleagues, including therapists and social workers, joined a call for volunteers, she says. None were previously members of the organization.
“We opened a hotline to connect our network of volunteers with people,” she says. Many who reach out are colleagues who themselves are struggling, adds Jandari, like an education counselor who is emotionally overwhelmed with having to treat students while also taking care of her own family in quarantine at home.
“Surprisingly, a significant number of the calls we get are from families whose children were studying abroad,” explains Jandari — the parents are struggling to balance care for their quarantined children while dealing with the heightened risk of exposure. “We also got calls about rising tension between couples at home,” she says.
Last week, the group reached out to the High Follow-Up Committee, says Jandari. Now, they are the official body responsible for mental health in Arab society, and their assistance is one of a set of services offered by the national health committee.
‘Racism has no cure’
“In a moment of crisis, our nobility stands out. We all feel helpless facing the pandemic, and actions and donations help people rid themselves of this sense of helplessness,” explains Jandari. “We are also at home, and have more availability as a result.”
The state’s racism is another factor that has pushed Palestinian citizens of Israel to come together, she adds. “The last elections and the government’s incitement against us have led people to unite and vote for the Joint List. We understood that the state will not look out for us, and so we must create our own institutions. We must fight for what we need, and rely first and foremost on ourselves.”
“The most important thing is to know that we are capable,” continues Jandari. “We have top-quality professionals. We have the skills. We stopped feeling less-than compared to Israelis, and realized that we are capable of achieving so much more.”
Haddad, the political activist from Shefa-‘Amr, echoes her message: “There has always been a sense of solidarity in our society,” he says, recalling how mosques and churches in the city opened their doors during the Second Intifada in 2002, when Israel put the occupied territories under military curfew, and masses of people gave donations. “In a single day,” he continues, “we filled up seven trucks with food essentials and NIS 150,000 for medicine, in support of our brothers and sisters in the West Bank. It was amazing.”
He also remembers how during the Lebanon War in 2006, when Palestinian homes were damaged by rocket fire, people immediately organized and raised money to help fix those homes. “I can’t remember a difficult time in which our people failed to stand together,” says Haddad. “People show their good side during crises and in times of need. It is true that we’ve become a consumerist society, but our kindness and selflessness haven’t gone away,” he adds.
“And anyway, we know who the state’s resources are intended for,” says Haddad. “This is the state of the Jewish people. We are not part of its plan or in its list of priorities. We understand that we have nobody but ourselves and our community. We don’t have a state, we don’t have our own institutions. And that’s why there’s increased solidarity in Arab society.
“In the Israeli street, it’s different,” he observes. “They know they have a country they can rely on. They have a prime minister who addresses them on TV every day and talks about national resilience, referring to his people, Jewish Israelis. He’s not talking to us. Even during the corona[virus] crisis, the prime minister continues to incite against the Joint List. The coronavirus pandemic will eventually have a cure, but the racism epidemic in Israel has no cure.”
For Barakeh of the High Follow-Up Committee, the passing of the Jewish Nation-State Law further entrenched this understanding. “Our society underwent a deep change,” he says. “People who had never been politically active started showing up to protests, and there’s a rising need to feel like we belong to the same group, to come together.”
Besides food donations, other initiatives have emerged to connect parents and children while families are quarantined at home, like Sana’a Deeb’s “Family Activities” group on Facebook. “I wanted to create a page that speaks to people at eye level, and that can allow parents and children to participate together,” says Deeb, an educational advisor. “Everyone is busy with work and with the hardships, and parents almost have no quality time with their children.
“I believe in play. Playtime can teach us a lot, and can bring the family together, stir our imagination and creativity,” she adds. In a week, the group garnered 3,000 members, who started helping each other in other ways, like sending book and movie recommendations, explains Deeb.
The children’s star Roni Rock from Nazareth, known in the Arab-Palestinian community as “Uncle Roni,” decided to put a smile on children’s faces as well. Every day, he performs in the empty streets of a different neighborhood in the city, as children watch and dance along from their homes and balconies.
Maria de-Pina, a party organizer who created an exclusive club for couples and singles over 35 called “Ayyam el-Loulou” (Arabic for Pearl Days), decided to host an online party as a way of making club members happy during this challenging time. “Everyone is quarantined at home, and some of the club members are couples with children. There’s a need to release the tension. That’s why I hosted a party for both parents and children,” she says.
“Since the club is closed, it was also a way to stay connected with each other,” she adds. “I was surprised that more than 200 club members took part. Next week, I will host another party. We also announced a competition — every family will take a photo of themselves dancing, and a panel of judges will choose a winner. I’m trying to decode this new concept of ‘quarantine.’”
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.