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Connected but not Equal: Digital Gaps, Internet Infrastructure, Usage Trends and Online Safety in Arab Society in Israel

In recent decades, the digital realm has become central to everyday life, however, for a variety of reasons, not all population segments benefit equally from the internet. This leads to a “digital divide” characterized by disparities in access to, and use of, communication technologies.

The Arab population in Israel constitutes 21% of the total population as of late 2022 (around 2 million citizens), making it the largest minority group in the country. Its members reside in five main regions within Israel, most of which are in the social and geographic periphery of the country: the North (Galilee), the Triangle (the major towns in this area are Taybe, Tira, Kalanswa, Umm al-Fahm, and Baqa al-Gharbiyye), the Negev, mixed cities (Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramla, Lod, Nof HaGalil, and Ma’alot-Tarshiha), and the Jerusalem corridor (Haddad Haj Yahya et al., 2021). The Arab population is comprised of various subgroups, each with its own socioeconomic, geographic, educational, and cultural characteristics. On the whole, however, the Arab population faces a significant digital divide.

This study aims to provide a comprehensive view of the digital divide in Arab society in Israel, examining its various aspects based on a representative survey sample of 714 Arab participants from across Israel. Conducted by the polling company Ifakar, the survey inquired about internet infrastructure accessibility, ownership of digital devices, level of digital skill and usage, and exposure to online threats and abuse.

Our findings and analysis represent a significant step toward understanding the digital divide faced by Israel’s Arab population and illuminate the path to reducing the social and economic disadvantages that it may create. In a society where the internet penetrates almost every aspect of life, lack of digital skills and access can significantly hinder everyday functioning, the ability to exercise basic rights, access to professional development opportunities, and social mobility. The insights provided by this study are crucial for advancing public policy to minimize the digital divide for the Arab population and benefit  Israeli society as a whole.

Link to the full-length study (Hebrew)

Link to the full-length study (Arabic)

The study categorizes the various components of the digital divide into three levels, and examines their implications for both the Arab population and Israeli society as a whole.

Note: Data included here regarding the Jewish population was not collected as part of the present study, but was sourced from previous surveys conducted by the Israel Internet Association.

1.    Internet Access and Digital Device Ownership

At the primary level, the findings indicate critical deficits in internet infrastructure and ownership of digital devices among the Arab population.

  • Internet Connectivity: 63% of respondents have a DSL internet connection (compared to 44% of the Jewish population), and only 7% have fiber optic connections (compared to 41% of the Jewish population). About a quarter rely solely on cellular connections, which are slower and more limited. This gap is especially pronounced in the Negev region, where only 2% of respondents have fiber optic connections and 42% rely on cellular service.
  • Internet Quality: 27.5% of respondents browse at speeds of 40 Mbps or higher, with about 30% unsure of their speeds. 42% of Arab respondents report using internet connections that are considered relatively low-speed, making advanced internet use like remote work and education more difficult.
Chart 9: Home Internet Speed

Chart 9: Home Internet Speed

Device Ownership: While 93% of Arab respondents own smartphones (compared to 95% of the Jewish population), fewer own more versatile devices like computers. 71% own laptops and only 28% own desktop computers, compared to 83% and 61%, respectively, in the Jewish population. Higher education and income levels were shown to be strongly correlated with computer ownership.

 

2.    Digital Skills and Literacy

At the secondary level, the survey reveals deficiencies in the digital awareness and literacy of the Arab population.

  • Purposes and Frequency of Use: 81% of respondents primarily use the internet for social media, with lower rates for advanced uses like information searches (68%), banking (67%), and education (37%). These rates are lower than those in the Jewish population.
Chart 14: Primary Purposes of Internet Use Over the Past Month

Chart 14: Primary Purposes of Internet Use Over the Past Month

  • Average Browsing Time: Arab respondents spend an average of 3.7 hours online daily, compared to seven hours for the general population, potentially indicating lower levels of digital skills needed to fully utilize the internet’s potential for various functions.
Chart 13: Average Time Spent Online Daily

Chart 13: Average Time Spent Online Daily

  • Email Usage: 31% of Arab respondents do not have an active email address or have one and do not use it. Email is a basic tool necessary for optimal communication in today’s digital world, and its absence could translate into inability to carry out basic actions online.
Chart 15: Purposes of Email Use

Chart 15: Purposes of Email Use

  • Digital Tools and Applications: The most common app among respondents is WhatsApp (93%), followed by YouTube (78%), search engines like Google (74%), Facebook (69%), Instagram (64%), and TikTok (63%). Younger respondents (ages 18-34) use Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat more often than older respondents (35+).
Chart 12: Frequency of App and Website Use

Chart 12: Frequency of App and Website Use

3.    Benefits and Opportunities Afforded by Internet Use

The tertiary level of the digital divide focuses on the benefits, advantages, and opportunities derived from the use of digital technologies. The findings show disparities between the Arab and Jewish populations in translating internet access into tangible benefits.

  • Online Government Services: Only 49% of Arab respondents use the internet for government information and services, compared to much higher rates in the Jewish population.
  • Health Information and Services: 63% of Arabs use the internet for health-related purposes, with higher percentages in the Jewish population. In an age of “digital health”, this gap could affect Arab citizens’ access to critical health services and information.
  • Commerce and Banking: 51% of respondents shop online, and 53% pay bills online, compared to much higher rates in the Jewish population.
  • Education: 37% of Arab respondents use the internet for e-learning, compared to a higher percentage in the Jewish population. This could suggest that Arab citizens encounter more obstacles in accessing online educational opportunities and professional development.

 Exposure to Online Threats

The study also examined the Arab population’s exposure to various online harms and threats. Findings show that 19% of respondents fell victim to phishing scams, 18% were targeted with viruses or hacking attempts, and 11% suffered from online impersonation or identity theft. These rates are higher than those reported in the Jewish community. Over half of the respondents said they would contact the Israeli police in case of harm, while 20% either did not know whom to contact or would not report the harm.

The findings suggest that the heightened exposure to online threats is linked to a relatively low degree of digital literacy in the Arab population. Lack of awareness and knowledge about online dangers, along with insufficient skills related to information security and privacy, make Arab users more vulnerable to exploitation and harm.

Primary Recommendations for Action:

Infrastructure:

State regulators must create incentives for telecommunications companies to accelerate deployment of fiber optic infrastructure in Arab communities. So too, the quality of cellular infrastructure in Arab communities must be matched to that of Jewish communities through stringent enforcement of uniform standards on cellular operators.

Special resources should be allocated to developing infrastructure in the Negev region, including the deployment of fiber optics and cellular antennas in Bedouin cities and villages. Moreover, efforts should be made to ensure that the quality of cellular browsing in the Negev matches that of other regions in the country, particularly in areas where the infrastructure currently only supports 3G technology.

Digital Literacy:

Targeted educational digital literacy programs should be coordinated, imparting practical skills for efficient navigation of various online services.

Digital literacy should be integrated into the Arab education system from an early age, as part of the regular curriculum and in enrichment programs.

Efforts should be intensified to adapt government and public websites to Arab society. This requires translation and cultural adaptation of all online governmental and municipal services.

Services provided by the national government and local municipalities should be digitized in such a way that ensures accessibility for Arab citizens.

Online Threats:

A targeted training and awareness campaign for the Arab population should be established to provide knowledge and tools to combat common cyber threats such as phishing, viruses, and online fraud. Additionally, the development of culturally adapted and Arabic-translated protective technologies should be encouraged and incentivized to meet the needs of this population.

National cybersecurity agencies, law enforcement agencies, and Arab civil society organizations must collaborate further in promoting digital education and raising awareness about online safety.

For more information on the Israel Internet Association’s work toward bridging the digital divide, go to ISOC-IL: Bridging Israel’s Digital Divide.