What would happen if Arab doctors decided to stay at home? This is a question which former director of the Mossad, Efraim Halevy, posed amidst the current Coronavirus pandemic. Efraim was referring to the Arab-Israeli (sometimes referred to as the “1948 Arabs”) doctors, who make up twenty per cent of all physicians in Israel. Arab-Israeli doctors can be found in hospitals throughout all regions of Israel, and many of hold high positions in their fields. For instance, a large percentage of Arab-Israeli doctors are head directors at hospitals, or heads of departments at clinics and health centres.
The current crisis has shone a spotlight on Arab-Israeli doctors’ importance for the health sector. One of the earliest incidents that sparked the public’s interest on the topic was when a significant Israeli individual went to a hospital in Tel Aviv. At said hospital he found that an Arab doctor was the one who was ensuring that the Coronavirus wasn’t spreading through the clinic. He did so by testing all the patients, all of whom were Jewish, who came into the clinic. Another news story that made headlines was one of the 38-year-old Dr Heba Ziad who works for a hospital in Nazareth. Dr Ziad successfully treated the 16thCoronavirus patient in Israel, despite the fact that he was in a critical condition. The patient was a young 38-year-old man who was placed in the ICU and was put on a ventilator.
Treating the16th patient is only the latest of her accomplishments. Dr Ziad is a mother of three children, but she nevertheless successfully balanced her domestic and professional life. Her hard work and perseverance saw her become the Director of the "Epidemiology and Infection Prevention" unit at Poria Hospital in Tiberias.
Dr Heba Ziad (Majalla)
Shortly after the initial outbreak, it became evident just how vital Arab-Israeli doctors are for the Israeli healthcare sector. Furthermore, many Arab-Israeli doctors were and currently are putting their lives at risk by being at the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, especially considering the fact of how contagious the virus is. Most Arab-Israeli doctors live in Arab towns mostly located in the Northern District and the Ijlil Village. Both of these regions are situated far from most Israeli hospitals. As such, not only are these Arab doctors risking their lives by doing their jobs, they also have to make long daily journeys to and from work. The sacrifices that these doctors make have been recognised in recent weeks, as many campaigns have been held thanking them for the service they provide to the public.
In an interview with Majalla, Dr. Heba Ziad said: “There is still so much we don’t know about the Coronavirus, however, we are in constant contact with health authorities in Europe and East Asia since these countries have had more exposure to the virus and the best way to treat its patients. So far, we only use experimental treatments that have no known side effects, and thankfully one of said treatments worked with my patient.
Dr. Heba Ziad was one of the first physicians to be recognised in the national solidarity with doctors campaign, as a photo of her was published all around the country. In the photo, she was standing by an Arabic sign that read: “Thank you to Dr Heba Ziad for rescuing Coronavirus patient number 16”.
The campaign spread photos of doctors and medical staff who were treating COVID-19 patients, and many of the most prominent doctors featured were Arab. In spite of the recognition Arab doctors are getting now, Arab-Israeli citizens have historically struggled in Israel for several reasons. During the first week of the Coronavirus outbreak in Israel, the Israeli right-wing was doing a defamatory campaign against the Arab-Israeli Joint List movement. The main reason behind the campaign was because of the movement’s stance on Benny Gantz forming a government.
In an extraordinary turn of events, many establishment Israeli politicians and security officials joined with the Joint List’s solidarity campaign which thanked the efforts of Arab-Israeli doctors. It should also be noted that the overwhelming majority of Arab-Israelis are Joint List supporters, as a matter of fact, 90 percent of the “1948 Arabs” who voted in the latest election voted for the Joint List. This leads us to a critical question: Why do Arab-Israeli doctors face many incidences of defamation, despite the fact that they do their humanitarian duty of treating the ill? The fact that they never discriminate between an Arab patient and a Jewish patient also makes this a valid question that needs to be addressed.
From here, Efraim Halevy said: “Whoever rejects the Arab members of the Knesset, rejects their supporters. Those supporters include Arab-Israeli doctors who are currently saving the lives of many Israelis.”
Halevy would go on to say: “Many from the Arab community are working for the Israeli health sector. Many of them are heads of hospitals, and specialists. Many of the nation’s top surgeons, oncologists, and cardiologists in the country are Arabs. Thousands of Arabs work as nurses, equipment maintenance staff, and janitors in hospitals. Arab-Israelis also play a huge role in the pharmacy field; most pharmacists in Tel Aviv-Yafo and its surrounding cities are Arab. Moreover, only two members of the Knesset are physicians, one of whom is Ahmad El Teeby who earned his medical degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.“
On the question of what would happen to the health sector if Arab doctors stayed at home Halevy said: “Today, the Israeli health sector is dependent on many factors, among them is the presence of its Arab staff. If the thousands of Arab doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other health workers decided to stay home, then our entire healthcare system would collapse”. Halevy would praise the efforts of Arab doctors during this crisis, as many of them have opted to rent properties closer to the hospitals they work at, some have spent more than two weeks working at their hospitals, while others have been working 24/7 responding to emergencies.
AN ARAB DOCTOR AND DEPUTY MAYOR OF A JEWISH CITY
Shukri Awawdeh is an Arab doctor who resides in Nof HaGalil, a Jewish city overlooking the Arab city of Nazareth. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, Awawdeh was heavily involved in politics. In his ethnically diverse city, he was able to establish a movement that joined all Arab political parties and this movement became known as the Joint List. The Joint List successfully gained the votes of most Arab-Israeli citizens, and it became the official representative for Arabs in the Knesset. He was then appointed to become the Deputy Mayor of Nof HaGalil and he is the medical director of Nazareth’s Kupat Holim Meuhedet office.
Dr Shukri Awawdeh (Majalla)
He has played a huge role in the fight against the Coronavirus in Nof HaGalil. This city, and the North District by extension, didn’t receive as much attention as it needed from the health sector during the crisis. As Deputy Mayor, Awawdeh worked tirelessly with the Israeli health sector to establish a testing centre in Nof HaGalil. This centre opened a month after the virus initially spread in the city and it has benefitted both Jewish and Arab inhabitants in Nof HaGalil and Nazareth.
In an interview with Majall, Dr Awawdeh reiterated the vital role of Arab-Israeli doctors in the Israeli health sector: “Arabs make up 1/5 of all employees in the health sector. In the North District, 40 per cent of doctors, health workers, nurses and emergency responders are Arab, that means that any Jewish-Israeli who is admitted at a hospital in the North District is likely to be treated by an Arab doctor or nurse. The Israeli right wing’s defamation campaign did not make an impact on how patients interact with Arab doctors.”
UNITED AGAINST A COMMON ENEMY
Dr Awawdeh thinks that the Coronavirus has effectively broken many of the barriers that politicians built to separate communities. In his opinion, Arab doctors, health workers and Jewish-Israeli citizens in the Northern and Central District have collectively broken these barriers. Arab doctors did this by doing their sworn duties despite the risk it could have on their lives, while Jewish citizens did that by participating in these appreciation campaigns.
Professor Ravi Valden, who works for Sheba Hospital in Tel Aviv, shared Dr Awawdeh’s sentiments. He said that Jewish and Arab doctors work together harmoniously in Sheba, as well as other hospitals and health centres around the country. “Everyone loves and respects them (the Arab doctors), without them the Israeli health sector would collapse.” With regards to Netanyahu’s defamatory attacks, Valden said: “I’ve grown tired of them, he knows the important role Arabs play in the Israeli health sector, yet he unashamedly continues with these attacks.” Solidarity between Arab and Jewish doctors has increased during the time; recently 680 Arab and Jewish physicians signed a petition aimed at the Prime Minister’s defamatory comments. Dr Awawdeh was one of the signatories of the petition. This petition led to more stories being published about Arab doctors in the Israeli health sector, an aspect of daily life in Israel that the public largely ignored. Among the Arab doctors who were prominently featured in news stories was Dr Soad Hajj Yehia.
Dr. Soad Yehia works in the internal medicine department of Sheba Hospital, and is about to end her major in Immunology and Allergy. Her husband also works at the hospital and specializes in neurosurgery. Dr. Yehia said that she gets annoyed and upset when the Prime Minister states that Israel needs to form a unified government that excludes Arab-Israelis. She is especially upset given the fact that Arab doctors are a central part in this fight against the virus. While Arab and Jewish doctors are standing side by side in solidarity, Dr Yehia states that she has experienced some incidents of prejudice from Jewish patients. She recalled one incident when one patient was transferred to her from a different department. The patient had told her that she did not want to be treated at that first department because it had Arab doctors. When Dr. Yehia told her that she herself was Arab, the patient was surprised and told her that she didn’t look Arab. The patient then subsequently requested to be transferred to another department, but the hospital refused. Dr Yehia refuses to be fazed by such attacks: “I chose to ignore such incidents, and treat all patients with all my heart. I am proud to be Arab, I am also proud to be a doctor who saves lives. I also believe in living in peace and harmony.”
Professor Jihad Bishara also received attention during the doctors' support campaign. He is the director of the Epidemiology Unit at Plenson Hospital in Petah Tikva. Most of the doctors who work at that hospital are Jewish. At work, Bishara separates his duties from politics. “I do my job without thinking of what happens outside this hospital.” As a doctor, he is treated fairly by his Jewish colleagues. However, outside the hospital, he is subject to many racial attacks. But he doesn’t let that come in the way of his work.
THE CRISIS WITHOUT ARAB PROFESSIONALS
In light of this crisis, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conducted research that exposed the discrimination Arab citizens face in Israel. The study showed that health services in Israel were harder for Arabs to access, fewer Coronavirus tests were being conducted among Arabs and informational material about COVID-19 wasn’t even available in Arabic. The study also noted that the fight to save lives would be “fatally compromised” without Arab professionals.
THE INSS’S RECOMMENDATIONS
At the end of the study, the INSS listed some policy recommendations to the government:
Jewish and Arab medical teams alike are combat soldiers in the shared war against the pandemic. The Arab population must be treated as equals and full partners in dealing with the danger, and given the sense that they and their welfare are taken seriously.
In the wider context of Jewish-Arab relations, the sense of shared destiny should be seen as an opportunity not to be missed to create a new and positive basis for the full integration of Arabs into the social fabric of Israel.
There should be an end to exclusionary and racist discourse and statements that call into question Arab loyalty to the state; Arabs’ wish to participate in the political levels and the legitimate integration of their representatives in the decision making processes should be recognized and respected.
4. Ensure equal provision of medical services, such as the drive-in testing center, while granting adequate representation to Arabs at decision making levels in the Ministry of Health and other ministries that are relevant to the crisis. It is also necessary to appoint a senior Arab spokesperson behalf of the Ministry of Health who can appear before the Arab public as a credible professional authority and encourage the appearance of Arab health experts in the principal media channels, including the Hebrew stations.
Launch a public information campaign in Arabic to educate people on how to deal with the virus. The information also should be presented by religious leaders and other influential figures, and address each community according to its customs, culture, and needs. Different Bedouin populations need specific kinds of information conveyed, preferably orally, by religious and communal leaders, as well as by doctors who come from tribes and families that are seen by the population as role models.