August 21, 2020

Digital Gaps and Accessibility for Arab Society: From Connectivity to Skills and Services

Photo credit: Computer for Every Child

The rapid shift to remote working, learning, health and public services in Israel due to the Covid-19 crisis has placed renewed and urgent emphasis on digital accessibility and inclusion. Varying levels of access to internet infrastructure, equipment, culturally adapted content, and digital skills and literacy pose immediate and significant challenges for efforts to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the crisis.

Israel’s Arab society faces barriers on all levels of digital access. Over the Corona period, some of the immediate consequences of digital gaps are that:

  1. fewer Arabs were able to work remotely (23% compared with 34% of Jewish employees according to Sikkuy (Hebrew)) due to overrepresentation in hardest-hit fields and lack of connectivity
  2. remote schooling challenges are exacerbated due to lack of equipment, connectivity and digital literacy among teachers, parents and kids (Hebrew)
  3. urgent online government services were either inadequate or nonexistent in Arabic (Hebrew); and
  4. Arab citizens had trouble accessing government benefits, pensions, and services both due to the lack of available content but also due to lack of digital literacy and access (Hebrew).

Digitization and reducing digital gaps have been a growing government priority, with major national programs (i.e. Digital Israel) established in recent years, and more recently, the creation of a National Digital Ministry. In recent weeks, with due to the emerging urgency, several budgets and plans have been passed to accelerate these efforts. While these are inclusive of Arab society, they are not specific to its unique barriers and needs, leaving questions open about pending implementation challenges on the ground.

Among these recent measures is a section in the pending proposal for the national budget (Hebrew) to ensure nation-wide connectivity. This includes creation of a first-ever dedicated fund to subsidize connections in areas that less profitable internet providers.1 Another resolution, Government Resolution 260 (Hebrew), passed at the end of July, budgets nearly NIS 300 million outside of the state budget to enhance infrastructure, national and local government services, as well as access to remote learning in higher education.

On the formal education level, the Ministry of Education is rolling out a NIS 1.75 B program (Hebrew) to promote connectivity, communication and effective distance learning throughout the education system. This ranges from broadband connections for schools, some 144,000 laptops with cellular internet support, professional training for teachers, and curriculum that integrates digital skills with standard subjects. This program is national and inclusive of the Arabic education stream, including pedagogic materials and teacher training adapted for Arab society. Current questions around this plan include whether equipment and training will be enough in quantity, adaptation and reach to meet the needs in Arab society.

Numerous civil society organizations are advocating for and working in support of policies and services that address the needs of Arab society. In addition, many local and regional organizations are helping to fill equipment and connectivity needs for schools and families, supporting citizens unfamiliar with online tools in accessing services, and training public institutions in producing culturally as well as linguistically adapted content for Arab society. A preliminary and incomplete list of organizations is included below and will be updated on an ongoing basis.


Infrastructure and Equipment
Internet infrastructure and equipment is the first line of digital connectivity. In many Arab localities, internet infrastructure is not as developed as it is in Jewish localities, including lower speed connections, or no connectivity at all as in many Negev Bedouin localities. According to the Israel Internet Association 2018 report, The Internet in Arab Society, most internet infrastructure in the Arab sector is unstable and lacks adequate security for business purposes especially. In recent Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee discussions, officials from the Negev expressed concerns that it may not be possible—given the sprawl and lack of electric grid in unrecognized villages—to place Wi-Fi service points in all places where a Bedouin community resides (Hebrew).

Regarding equipment, as of 2018, roughly 50% of Arab society had access to the internet through a computer, compared with about 80% of Jewish society (Hebrew). Recent estimates are that some 140,000 Arab students do not have access to a computer. For many Arab citizens, this means smartphones are the most direct access to online resources. While this is better than no access at all, many websites are less accessible on smartphones, and most online work and learning requires a computer to be effective.

Among students, the following table shows the rate of connectivity and computer access by population group. Note that it does not factor for the additional strain created when multiple individuals need access to the same computer at the same time.


Digital Literacy
After infrastructure and equipment is the issue of digital literacy and problem-solving skills in technology-rich environments. Overall, Israel ranks below the OECD average for this skillset (20th out of 29 in 2016). According to PIACC scores from 2015, Arab citizens are nearly four times as likely to lack basic technological capacities or experience than non-Orthodox Jews, and nearly twice as likely to lack skills compared with the Ultra-Orthodox. (See table below). Digital literacy is key to longer-term targets of integrating Arabs into advanced professions that can be performed and adapted to online platforms. More immediately, skills gaps limit Arab citizens from using online tools to manage day-to-day activities remotely (i.e. making purchases, accessing benefits, banking), and from supporting their children with distance learning—a need among all primary school children especially (Hebrew).


Services and Inclusion
Finally, language and cultural inclusivity are barriers related both to the capacity of the Arabic speaking minority to navigate an online world in Hebrew, and to the capabilities of Israeli institutions to address and serve the Arabic speaking minority. For example, early in the Coronavirus crisis, the Ministry of Health struggled to publish vital guidelines in Arabic. After initial delays, when guidelines came out in Arabic some of the information was published in a non-local Arabic dialect (Hebrew), creating an initial lack of trust and confusion about the seriousness of the recommendations. Likewise, unemployment forms on the National Insurance (Hebrew) and Israeli Employment Service websites were not translated and thus inaccessible to Arabic speakers. A 2018 study by the Knesset Research and Information Committee found that nine government ministries had no or minimal information in Arabic on their websites, while eight more had limited Arabic contact options. (Hebrew).


In July 2020, the Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC) issued a comprehensive report “Digital Gaps and Implementation of Government Policy to Reduce Them” (Hebrew). Based on a review of existing gaps, their immediate implications and existing government programs for digital access for Arab society, the report makes three long-term recommendations:

  1. Establishing a national headquarters to coordinate digitization activities in Arab society that will deal with improving infrastructure, adapting public websites to the needs of Arab society, and improving digital education.
  2. Upgrading internet and cellular infrastructure in the Arab localities to the standard of Jewish and mixed localities.
  3. Digitizing government and local authorities’ services via a multiyear program, completing a full translation of government services and websites to Arabic by 2025, and enforcing local authorities to establish and maintain a digital information and services system for their residents.


Government bodies and ministries involved in enhancing digitization in Israel include the Ministry of Communication responsible for infrastructure; the new Ministry of Cyber and National Digital Matters which now overseas Digital Israel (see below); the Ministry of Science and Technology which, among other things, operates digital literacy centers throughout the country and in Arab society; the Ministry of Social Equality, the Ministry of Education and more.

Digital Israel, established in 2013, was created specifically to “promote economic growth, increase social welfare, and reduce social disparities through information and communication technologies. “It is the main government body advancing and piloting a range of programs to improve digital access and literacy in the geographic and social periphery, often in partnership with local authorities and civil society organizations. Some of these projects are “Digital Hura” and its offshoot “Digital Communities” (Hura, Ramla and Jerusalem), “Digital Literacy for Women’s Empowerment”, “Project Up” for employment skills, “Campus IL” – online digital literacy courses, among others.


Many civil society organizations are involved in digital access for Arab society in some form in Israel. Some are advocating on a national level and many more have taken on addressing digital gaps for their constituencies recognizing their immediate needs. The following list is far from exhaustive but aims to provide pertinent examples in the range of needs described above:

Abraham Initiatives: produced a position paper presented to the Ministry of Education which outlined gaps relevant to distance learning in particular and issued immediate and long-term recommendations (see here).

Alkolod Llmarefa: is a small NGO operating since 2018 to advance rights utilization for Arab citizens by assisting them in dealing with government bureaucracy. During the Covid-19 crisis and with the move of government ministries and institutions to online services, Alkolod Llmarefa is one of the organizations providing direct assistance to individuals in filling online forms for the Israel Employment Service and the National Insurance to receive their unemployment benefits.

Appleseeds: (‘Tapuach’) promotes digital equality in Israel by developing and implementing programs (independently and in partnerships) in the areas of technology, employment, and life skills. Through its team of 250 professional instructors, Appleseeds works across the Israeli social and geographic periphery reaching some 80,000 beneficiaries annually. Over the Corona period, Appleseeds was part of creating “Connecting,” a program providing telephone assistance to individuals according to their needs, be it Zoom, WhatsApp, distance learning software, online shopping, government forms and more.

Computer for Every Child: Prior to Corona, this program had supplied more than 83,000 computers since 1996 (with software, warranty and tutorial bundle) and plans to supply another 8,500-10,000 in 2020.

Israel Internet Association (ISOC-IL): is an association operating since the 1990s and deals with a range of internet access issues from infrastructure and domain name registration to policy issues such as, accessibility, privacy, content filtering and more. Within this context, the association also deals with reducing the digital divide among the Arab population in Israel (and others). Since 2005, the association has been producing training kits and providing in-person trainings in Arabic, reaching 13,000 people in 34 localities. In 2018, the association produced a study “The Internet in Arab society In Israel,” considered the authoritative report on the subject. The association also conducts webinar on digital services for Arab society. Its insights are incorporated in the Knesset Research and Information Center recommendations for long-term measures.

JDC Institute for Leadership and Governance (ELKA): Convened a forum in partnership with Digital Israel to formulate intervention plans and projects that will provide best immediate solution for and projects for Arab society. The forum, comprised of civil society leaders, municipal and government officials, activists and digital literacy experts, has thus far led to: the creation of videos to support access of government services (like unemployment benefits, drivers’ license renewal, etc.); a series of webinars for public institutions about making their online services accessible to Arab society; translations of priority government forms and websites, and more.

Machsava Tova (‘Good Thinking/Programming’) enhances technological access and training to underserved populations via Computer Centers that are spread nationwide, usually located in poor neighborhoods, and Mobile Computer Units (MCU) that reach populations unable to reach our centers for various reasons: physical disabilities, cultural/religious restrains or people staying in shelters for victims of violence. During the Corona period, the organization operated distance learning systems for senior citizens, including classes on “Live” zoom and recorded lessons for viewing.

Tamar Center: Tamar Center Negev is a grassroots organization working to bridge the socio-economic gaps between Bedouins and the rest of Israeli society through education. Following a survey conducted to map students’ communication skills and equipment throughout March-July2, Tamar Center purchased 120 computers, modems and SIM cards. The computers are being distributed and lent to students in need, according to the connection infrastructure that exists in their locality, taking into consideration whether a suitable WI-FI infrastructure exists, the intensity of cellular reception as well as the available cellular networks. A teachers’ training is also taking place to ensure teachers are better equipped with the tools for teaching through distance learning platforms.

Tsofen: has been promoting expansion of high tech into Arab society since 2008, recently completed a proposal to make this expansion part of a multiyear government economic development plan for Arab society. In the context of this plan are recommendations for addressing digital infrastructure and are now advocating before relevant government bodies to ensure investments are being made.

1. Israel’s internet infrastructure is provided by private sector companies like HOT and Bezeq. According to government and civil society advocates, Arab communities, which have lower socio-economic status, few if any high-rise buildings, and less industry have lower return on investment, placing them lower on the priority list for services, upgrades and maintenance. It is not clear that Arab communities are considered priority areas under the Ministry’s definitions for the fund.

Explore Further
Digital Gaps in Arab Society Learn more

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How Can We Help?

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