Israeli-Arabs suffer selective enforcement over coronavirus rules violations

The numbers are clear: Arab towns and villages now have fewer coronavirus cases than ultra-Orthodox localities, yet enforcement of coronavirus restrictions is much much higher there.

al-monitor Israelis get the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at Clalit Health Services, in a gymnasium in the central Israeli city of Hod Hasharon, on Feb. 4, 2021. Initial data from Israel's coronavirus vaccination campaign shows the Pfizer/BioNTech jab protects against serious illness, but it is not yet clear whether it slows transmissions or spells progress toward achieving herd immunity, experts say. The Jewish state is carrying out what is widely described as the world's fastest vaccination campaign per capita, watched closely by experts worldwide.  Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.
Afif Abu Much

Afif Abu Much


Topics covered


Feb 22, 2021

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said this morning that almost 3 million Israelis have received their second coronavirus vaccine and 4.377 million Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose. With that, Israel has administered the most coronavirus vaccine doses per capita in the world. Thus, tiny Israel leads the world with its successful coronavirus vaccination efforts. The international press has turned Israel into a major focus of its attention, worthy of study because of its comprehensive program. Data and experience accumulated by Israel could serve as a future reference for vaccination programs elsewhere.

Still, a detailed look into the nationwide vaccination drive shows disparities between cities and sectors. The 10 leading localities with the highest vaccination rates are all affluent Jewish-secular towns. Jewish-Arab mixed cities such as Ramle and Lod show 50% to 25% vaccination rates only. Arab towns and villages show even lower rates. In fact, the Health Ministry reported last week that 23% of Israeli-Arabs had received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 33% of ultra-Orthodox Jews and 49% of other Jewish Israelis. These numbers are better than the ones registered at the beginning of the vaccination drive, but obviously not enough.

This week, the government announced that life in Israel would be “getting back to normal.” Malls, shops, gyms, swimming pools, cultural events, hotels and other venues would all be reopening in accordance with government guidelines. So, for example, some of these, such as cultural venues and exhibitions, would be accessible only to vaccinated visitors or to visitors recovering from the virus and who are believed to be immune to it.

And yet, despite the good news about the way the vaccination program has been handled, there have been more than enough failures in the way the virus has been handled. In many cases, Israelis felt that the decision-making process had been politicized, as evidenced by the selective enforcement of regulations and discrimination in the fines imposed for violating those rules. These sentiments prevail mostly within Arab localities, and for a reason.

Data collected about police enforcement indicate that enforcement was unrelated to the number of confirmed cases. So, for instance, there's a high rate of infection in ultra-Orthodox towns that continues today. Meanwhile, major breakouts in Arab towns occurred last summer after the first closure and with the start of the Arab wedding season, but the virus was relatively contained.

Nevertheless, while it would be expected that the number of police reports and fines would be high in towns with high rates of infection, the actual breakdown of police reports tells a very different story. It indicates a selective policy of enforcement by the Israeli police, whereas in ultra-Orthodox towns, where the infection rates were high, the number of police reports tended to be lower. In other words, there was stricter enforcement in Arab towns, even though the infection rate stabilized and the number of confirmed cases remained steady, compared to the Jewish population.

To be exact, a comparison of ultra-Orthodox and Arab towns published Feb. 12 found that police reports were filed at a rate of 0.1 per case in ultra-Orthodox towns, as compared to 3.5 per case in Arab localities. This study was carried out by The Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel) movement, based on information made public by the various enforcement and collection agencies in the Justice Ministry.

Referring to this selective enforcement, the executive director of Israel Hofsheet, Uri Keidar, told Al-Monitor, “These disturbing statistics show yet again that the health of the coalition guides the prime minister and his natural partners far more than the health of the public, especially the ultra-Orthodox public. Instead of policy intended to reduce infection, through the enforcement of regulations among other means, the data shows that there are places where enforcement is intended as a means of punishment, and there are places where there is no enforcement whatsoever.’’

Keidar says the same government that is not protecting its Arab citizens from rampant organized crime is overly and disproportionally enforcing coronavirus regulations there. “The enforcement of coronavirus regulations should have been efficient, productive and equal. Instead, we discovered once again that the primary considerations are political,” he argues.

This tendency of selective enforcement can be found in an earlier report compiled by Tal Alovitch, who studies public policy for Israel Hofsheet. He found there was absolutely no logic to the enforcement policies. One-third of police reports filed out in 2020 were given out in Arab towns and villages, whereas only 2.3% were handed out in ultra-Orthodox towns. Furthermore, a list of the 20 towns and villages that received the most police reports for violations includes 18 Arab towns but only 2 Jewish ones.

“The weakest link in the country paid more,’’ Israeli-Arab media commentator Faleh Habeeb told Al-Monitor. “Arab society is perceived as a weak link, and it paid double for it. It paid in terms of the spread of the virus, which exacted many victims, but also in terms of the fines that Arabs were forced to pay,’’ he explained.

Ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey became something of a media sensation over the last year because of his coverage of coronavirus violations in the ultra-Orthodox sector. He told Al-Monitor, “It is obvious that enforcement and the fight against the coronavirus has been politicized. The influence of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members is apparent in the low number of complaints filed against the ultra-Orthodox sector when compared to the Arab public. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the police are unable to ensure equal enforcement of the regulations among the different sectors of the Israeli public, at least not systematically. They simply aren’t built for that. The police do not want to get into a fight with the rabbis or the ultra-Orthodox leadership, and certainly not with the ultra-Orthodox masses. That would be too much of a challenge.”