The images of soldiers wearing uniforms and patrolling inside Arab-Israeli villages might seem harsh to some people, but the assistance of Home Front Command to Arab society during the coronavirus crisis has been received with an open hand, OC Northern District Brig.-Col. Guy Berger said Sunday.
Since the Second Intifada, in incidents that were dubbed as the “October 2000 events,” there is growing mutual wariness between Arab-Israelis and the state. The lack of policing when it comes to solving murder cases, and the over-policing when comes to giving fines, has deepened the rift in recent years.
However, Home Front Command soldiers – who came to enforce lockdowns and to provide assistance in quarantines, vaccines, food supply for the needy and other forms of help – did not face any difficulty operating within Arab villages, Berger told The Jerusalem Post.
The connection between Arab local authorities and Home Front Command goes back many years, as the latter holds periodic training for municipalities for emergency situations, he said.
“It wasn’t the first time they met us,” he said, referring to the interaction between his soldiers and Arab citizens.
“We have the duty to prepare the civil sphere for an emergency, and we’ve been doing it for years,” Berger said. “So when we got to Kafr Manda, Deir Hanna or the Druze municipalities in the Golan Heights, these municipalities knew us. We have trained them before, and they know our officials.”
“However, the footage of soldiers wearing orange vests, delivering food or carrying out information campaigns [regarding the pandemic] in Arab towns might have been an odd image to some,” he said. “But I must say that since day one, the slogan that led us has been: ‘We build bridges where some want to build walls.’”
BERGER’S DISTRICT consists of 67 local authorities in the North. Two-thirds of these are either Arab or Jewish-Arab mixed municipalities.
The Northern District has been an integral part of Home Front Command’s effort to fight the pandemic. It has taken part in operations to set up command and control centers that provide daily reports on the status of the municipalities and to maintain an ongoing connection with citizens.
Home Front Command also carried out “civil assistance,” which includes: setting up hotels for those who are required to be in quarantine and helping them with day-to-day tasks, such grocery shopping; breaking infection chains and training local municipality workers to help with contact tracing; and carrying out information campaigns to raise awareness about the virus and to call on the public to cooperate with the restrictions and to get vaccinated.
For both contact tracing and information campaigns, the Northern District had to think out of the box and learn the special needs and culture of the society, Berger said.
“People mistakenly think that the Arab society is just one big group, but they’re wrong,” he said. “Just like among the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] society, where there are different streams and groups, also among Arabs there is diversity. There are Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins and Circassians.
All photographs were taken by the IDF Spokesperson's Unit and show Home Front Command soldiers distributing informative pamphlets about the coronavirus pandemic in Arabic.
“There’s even a distinction between every village,” he added. “They have different roots and cultures. In order to have an effective information campaign, we need to turn not only to their minds but also to their hearts. When we go to Druze villages, for example, we need to learn how to express ourselves in their terms, and we learned a lot.”
In their efforts to understand Arab society, the soldiers routinely meet with political and religious leaders to enlist their help in influencing the public, Berger said.
“We learned, for instance, that the older [members of] society tends to listen more and take the advice of religious clerics,” he said. “But the younger generation is less approachable in that sense, so we found our way to it through social media.”
“Now, when the government decided that ages 16 to 18 are allowed to receive the vaccine, we launched a campaign in Arabic that called on grandchildren to take their grandparents with them to get the vaccine to close the gaps with [senior citizens] who did not get it,” he added.
Berger expressed hope that the work of Home Front Command in Arab towns and villages has strengthened the bonds and trust between the Arab minority and the state.
“From my perspective, all the municipalities that I dealt with, both Arab and non-Arab, saw that our combat against the coronavirus was professional,” he said. “They saw that there wasn’t discrimination in any form. They all received the same assistance, the same support and the same budget. I hope that this will strengthen their trust in us.”