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An emergency situation for Israel’s Arabs

Arab towns suffer from a dire lack of preparedness for emergencies, both military and non-military

There was no surprise among Israel’s Arab citizens that the last towns in the Jerusalem vicinity to be re-connected to the electric grid after last month’s storm were Abu Ghosh, Ein Naqubba, and Ein Rafa. For them, it was merely one more piece of evidence that national identity can be dangerous to their health, and possibly to their lives, in an emergency.

If it is true that they suffer from discrimination in everyday services in almost all areas, in emergencies Arab citizens become invisible. The first reminder I received of this was in the midst of the Second Lebanon War. The Abraham Fund Initiatives received a request from one of the most financially strong regional councils in the north for assistance in purchasing first-aid supplies and stretchers for the Arab towns in its jurisdiction. The council’s Jewish towns were equipped “to the teeth.” The head of the regional council and his staff did not bother to question how such differences came to be—for them, this situation was natural.

The lack of emergency preparedness of Arab towns is rooted in a double perspective failure: assuming that Arab citizens are immune to the consequences of hostile actions or war, and virtually equating emergency situations with war.

The first assumption collapsed during the Second Lebanon War, when it emerged that Arab citizens accounted for almost one half of all the citizens who lost their lives in the attacks against Israel. This assumption was responsible for the lack of alarm systems, shelters, emergency equipment, instructions in Arabic, or trauma services in Arab towns and villages. Mass “civil emergencies” such as the Carmel Forest fire and last winter’s floods in Baka El-Garbiya and Taybe, threatened Arabs as well as Jews, and proved the second assumption to be false as well.

A survey of emergency preparedness conducted by The Abraham Fund Initiatives in a sample of 24 Arab localities found that 86% of all Arab localities are virtually unprepared for an emergency: Only one fifth have local fire-fighting services, only one third have a local police station, and only one half have any type of emergency medicine clinic. A comparison  with adjacent Jewish localities accentuates the differences: A Magen David Adom station serves the 10,000 residents of Kokhav Yair and Tzur Yigal, but no similar station exists in either Kafr Qasim or Qalansawe, each of which has a population of 20,000, or in Tira, with a population of 23,000. Tivon (pop. 17,000) and Yokne’am (pop. 20,000) both have fire-fighting stations, but no station is located in Tamra (pop. 30,000). The schools in these Arab localities have shelters and protected spaces that are sufficient for no more than one third of the students. In general, the Arab local governments lack emergency procedures, action plans, or job descriptions for emergency events.

A key obstacle to adequate emergency preparedness in Arab society is the fact that the point in question is identified as a military/security issue. As in many countries, the army is also in charge of handling “non-military” emergencies, due to its organizational and executive capabilities, which are unmatched by any other government agency. It is logical to use the army’s enormous resources in such situations, but for the Arab population, the equation of “emergency” with “military” imposes a two-fold obstacle: the fact that (even civil) emergency preparedness involves interactions with the security establishment evokes misgivings among a substantial portion of the country’s Arabs. At the same time, this equation encourages the army and other agencies in charge of emergency preparedness to neglect the Arab sector, because decision-makers in these agencies are still operating under the misconception that the Arab public has a smaller chance, if any, of being targeted in hostile actions.

Some improvement has occurred in recent years. The Home Front Command, which is aware of its ambivalent image in Arab society as an arm of the military establishment, is doing quite a lot to produce public service announcements in Arabic and teach classes in Arab schools.  Appointing Arab emergency coordinators, and conducting emergency drills in Arab municipalities are important, but they are not enough. The military and the relevant ministries (Ministry of Interior, Internal Security, and Home Front Defense) must civilianize their approach to the country’s Arab citizens, modify services to the needs of Arab society and culture, and narrow the enormous gaps that have grown over the years. Just like the rest of the country, Arab citizens must stand up for their right to defense and preparedness in the emergency that we hope never occurs.

About the Author
Amnon Beeri-Sulitzeanu is the Co-Executive Director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-governmental organization that works to advance coexistence, equality and cooperation between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens