Israel / Hend Dabbah
Israel’s experience with Covid-19 highlights, in line with global trends, the impact the pandemic has on marginalised minorities. This experience however has shown that this impact can be particularly adverse in cases where there is institutionalised discrimination, deep inequalities, neglect and denial of human rights, thus making the vulnerable even more so. Moreover, Israel’s response to the pandemic reflects the extent to which democratic norms and human rights are enshrined in law and respected in practice.
Israel is classified as a high-income economy. While in 2018 the GDP in Israel was worth $37.6 billion and the GDP per capita was $41,715.03, the share of national expenditure on public health for the same year was 7.6% of the state’s GDP. This is lower than the average in OECD countries which amounts to nearly 8.8%. The Israeli healthcare system is publicly and privately financed. Compared to the public healthcare system which is based on compulsory national health insurance (NHI) combined with government budget (e.g. health taxation) that provide for universal health coverage (UHC), private healthcare is composed of voluntary health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket payments.
As of 2017, however, the number of doctors and nurses per 1,000 inhabitants was 3.1 and 5.1 respectively. The number of hospital beds was 3.0 per 1,000 inhabitants in 2018. These figures are most likely to be higher for 2020 since the number of newly qualified doctors and nurses has been on the rise in recent years, especially among Arabs. On the other hand, up-to-date figures are available on hospital respirators/ventilators: on 26 March 2020, there were 2864 respirators/ventilators available, which is equivalent to 3.2 per 100,000 inhabitants; local efforts for procurement and manufacturing of more ventilators continue to be made.
By 15 June 2020, the total number of infected cases in Israel since the start of Covid-19 pandemic reached 19,121, of which 302 were mortality cases. There has been a significant increase in the number of daily infections following the June 2020 relaxation of the lockdown by the government. Most of the new cases have been identified in schools. Almost 195 schools have had to be shut as a result. This has raised the possibility of a reinstatement of the lockdown.
Political Backdrop: Covid-19 and Undermining Democracy Amid a Yearlong Political and Legal Imbroglio.
Covid-19 caught Israel during deeply uncertain and unstable political circumstances, during which Netanyahu was indicted (see also here) for serious charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust; in parallel to his repeated failure to form a government following an unprecedented chain of three consecutive elections within a short space of time. Netanyahu was supposed to face trial on 17 March 2020. However, the swift shutdown of the judiciary and the incapacitation of the nation’s parliament, the Knesset, which ostensibly occurred as part of new emergency regulations to combat the spread of Covid-19, resulted in postponement of this date whilst ensuring Netanyahu’s further political survival. Netanyahu, eventually appeared (see also here) at his trial on 24 May 2020.
In another respect, on 23 March 2020, a petition was filed with the Israel Supreme Court by the Blue and White party, whose leader, Gantz, had received a mandate from the President, Reuven Rivlin, to form a government after the expiry of Netanyahu’s own mandate who was unable to establish a government. This petition was made to reconvene parliament in order to vote on a new chairman of the Knesset. However, Yuli Edlestein, the then Knesset chairman and the second ranking member in Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, refused to follow the Court’s decision to reconvene parliament. This move was intended to favour Netanyahu since it amounted to an impediment to advance any legislation that prevents a candidate charged with a criminal offence from forming a government. As a consequence, Israel was plunged into a constitutional crisis and this deepened the political and democratic impasse the state was already in.
The convergence of all of these events has been seen by some not only as an expression of Netanyahu’s skills at usurping power in order to serve his political interests amid a global health crisis, but also as a threat to Israel’s democracy. One commentator, Gershom Goremberg, author of the book, The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire, tweeted on 18 March 2020 that ‘the only recorded death so far in Israel from this virus was the already aging, highly vulnerable democracy.’
Israel’s COVID-19 Policy: Consequences and Implications for Human Rights
In an attempt to contain the spread of Covid-19, Israel adopted measures deemed to be among the most stringent in the world. In a pre-emptive and swift manner, Netanyahu and his narrow caretaker government imposed — already in late February 2020 — air travel restrictions. Flights from hotspot countries were banned, new arrivals from other countries were expected to self-isolate (see also here) and Israeli citizens were urged to refrain from unnecessary travel. Shortly after, the shutting down of schools was ordered. On 19 March 2020, following Mr Netanyahu’s declaration of a state of emergency, further restrictions on movement, gathering and transportation were imposed; in addition to new regulations restricting the opening of commercial and leisure activities. The restrictions on movement were in place for seven days; individuals who did not adhere to any of these measures would be subject to a fine.
Whilst the use of emergency measures can be seen as indispensable in times of crisis, especially one of a serious nature and magnitude as Covid-19, some of the policies by Netanyahu’s caretaker government to combat the virus raised fundamental questions concerning the use of power, democratic principles and fundamental human rights. These questions will be considered in a general, state-wide and Arab community-specific contexts.
In a general context, the implementation of emergency measures by government decree — whilst circumventing the approval of the Knesset — raised concerns. Under these measures, the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services, were authorised to secretly track, collect and process cell-phone data in a bid to narrow the spread of the virus – a move that was not announced publicly. Within the bounds of this surveillance programme, the Health Ministry sends text messages demanding people to self-isolate. In adopting such a programme, other than denting Israel’s democracy by surpassing parliament, a threat was posed to citizens’ right to privacy and dignity, especially in the absence of effective safeguards and transparency through legislation. These concerns are in addition to the problematic operation of the programme in some cases when people who were not infected by Covid-19 were mistakenly ordered to self-isolate, constituting, therefore, undue restriction on the right of movement.
In an Arab community-specific context, the government policies (or lack of thereof) exposed the extent to which the rights of Arab citizens were properly safeguarded and, in some ways, also accentuated the lack of true equality among Arabs and Jews. This has been possible to witness in the following respects.
First, the early stages of handling the spread of Covid-19 in Israel marked the government’s failure to provide real-time and regular updates and information in Arabic. Whilst accessible information — in all languages — is crucial in handling a global health crisis, Israel’s assiduous efforts to provide immediate Covid-19 related updates solely in Hebrew underlined existing inequalities faced by the Arab community. This not only violated the right to health, but potentially constituted a threat to public health itself. An urgent letter [Hebrew] sent by Adalah, The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, in early March 2020 to the then Health Ministry Director General, Bar Siman-Tov, demanded that all information regarding Covid-19 be available in Arabic on all digital and communication platforms. Whilst an effort was made to rectify the situation by supplying missing and up-to-date information in Arabic, the provision of essential information in Arabic has not been as extensive and comprehensive as that in Hebrew. The gap in information brings to the fore the recent Nationality Law, which defines Israel as a state ‘unique to the Jewish people’ and downgrades Arabic, which until then was, alongside Hebrew, an official language of Israel. Covid-19 is likely to revive the heated debate on this law especially since the law can be seen as having triggered the informational gap and informational inequality in Covid-19 times.
Secondly, Arab citizens did not have the same opportunity of early testing for Covid-19 as Jewish citizens following the announcement of a state of emergency. For almost two weeks, no proper testing was available in Arab communities. As a matter of fact, the low morbidity rate among Arab citizens, including those of East Jerusalem, seen during those two weeks was attributed (see also here) to the lack of: testing services (e.g. drive-through stations); poor infrastructure; delay in communicating information; and the absence of Arab representatives in Israel’s Covid-19 national emergency team. The stark disparity in the provision of health services and infrastructure in Arab and Jewish communities has been vividly highlighted in light of Covid-19.
Thirdly, arguably, the Covid-19 consequences and implications for human rights and equality are widest for Israel’s Bedouin citizens in the Southern region, the Naqab. The Bedouin community has been suffering systematic marginalisation, negligence and denial of basic socio-economic rights over many years. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the vulnerability of this community as they have no access to safe, clean running water, let alone access to the Internet, which, in particular, brings into question the government’s policy of child education through distance learning following its shutdown of schools. In addition, over 80,000 Bedouins, living in unrecognised villages, have no access to emergency medical services provided by Magen David Adom (MDA) and are subjected to regular eviction from their lands and constant demolition of homes and crops. These dire conditions, along with Israel’s failure to provide testing and other medical services to the Bedouin population in unrecognised villages, further undermines their right to health and compounds their susceptibility to the virus.