Abstract Background The Arab ethnic minority makes up 21% of Israel’s population, yet comprised just 8.8% of confirmed cases and 3.6% of deaths from COVID-19, despite their higher risk profile and greater burden of underlying illness. This paper presents differences in patterns of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 in the Arab, ultra-Orthodox and overall populations in Israel, and suggests possible reasons for the low rates of infection in the Arab population. Methods Data were obtained from the Israeli Ministry of Health’s (MOH) open COVID-19 database, which includes information on 1270 localities and is updated daily. The database contains the number of COVID-19 diagnostic tests performed, the number of confirmed cases and deaths in Israel. Results In the first 4 months of Israel’s COVID-19 outbreak, just 2060 cases were confirmed in the Arab population, comprising 8.8% of the 23,345 confirmed cases, or 2.38 times less than would be expected relative to the population size. In contrast, the ultra-Orthodox made up 30.1% of confirmed cases yet just 10.1% of the population. Confirmed case rate per 100,000 was twice as high in the general Jewish population compared to the Arab population. The Arab mortality rate was 0.57 per 100,000, compared to 3.37 in the overall population, and to 7.26 in the ultra-Orthodox community. We discuss possible reasons for this low morbidity and mortality including less use of nursing homes, and effective leadership which led to early closure of mosques and high adherence to social distancing measures, even during the month of Ramadan. Conclusions Despite a disproportionate burden of underlying illness, the Arab population did not fulfil initial predictions during the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak and maintained low numbers of infections and deaths. This contrasts with reports of increased mortality in ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged populations in other countries, and with high rates of infection in the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel. Effective leadership and cooperation between individuals and institutions, particularly engagement of community and religious leaders, can reduce a group’s vulnerability and build resilience in an emergency situation such as the current pandemic.