700 IDF troops, mostly unarmed, to join police in enforcing partial lockdown

Military says only commanders and soldiers serving in West Bank settlements will carry weapons, as IDF takes on complicated new mission among Israeli civilians

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Police officers enforce coronavirus restrictions in Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Police officers enforce coronavirus restrictions in Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Some 700 troops, most of them unarmed, are set to be deployed across the country to help police officers enforce the government’s partial lockdown, the government said Monday.

The extraordinary measure was approved by the cabinet Monday evening, as officials said thousands more soldiers could be called into service in the future, if the lockdown tightens.

The troops will conduct patrols alongside police officers, who will run the operation, according to a statement from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s office.

The contingent had originally been slated to join enforcement efforts on Sunday.

Following a number of deliberations on the matter, the government decided that the soldiers will not carry weapons, except for commanding officers and those serving in West Bank settlements.

Erdan’s office said it had been agreed that additional soldiers may be deployed if the lockdown became more strict. According to the Israel Defense Forces, a total of eight battalions — each of which contains a few hundred soldiers — have been designated for this purpose, with the possibility of doubling that if necessary.

Israeli soldiers outside the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv that was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 17, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The deployment of the IDF inside Israel proper is an exceedingly rare occurrence and a complicated, sensitive mission for the military, which is more used to serving in the West Bank and on the country’s borders to fight terrorism and repel foreign attacks, respectively.

A soldier checks the temperature of a comrade as he enters a military base, during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

As such law enforcement operations within Israeli cities are not in the military’s normal playbook, the troops involved have undergone rapid specialty training on the matter, according to the IDF.

The 700 soldiers — eight companies’ worth — will come from the military’s various training bases and will assist police by performing patrols, ensuring people remain in quarantine, blocking roads, and protecting the officers, according to the military.

One company would be deployed to each of the Israel Police’s eight districts across the country and the West Bank.

“The soldiers will undergo training for the mission and preparation for operating in the civilian space,” the IDF said last week.

Since Wednesday, March 25, at 5 p.m., Israelis have been ordered to remain in their homes, unless they are taking part in a small number of specially designated approved activities, including purchasing food and medicine.

Police officers at a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim, as they close shops and disperse public gatherings following the government’s decisions, in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Those found violating those regulations are subject to large fines of upwards of NIS 500 and even imprisonment.

The government was also considering ordering a yet more dramatic full national lockdown, in which nearly no one would be allowed to leave their homes under any circumstances, in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus to prevent a collapse of the country’s healthcare system.

The IDF has been gradually getting more and more involved in the national response to the coronavirus pandemic, assisting the country’s other emergency response services and working with local governments to prepare for the crisis.

Israeli troops pack boxes of food as part of the military’s preparations to support the country’s supply lines in light of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Shin Bet security service has also played a critical and controversial role in the government’s efforts with a contentious mass surveillance program to retrace the movements of confirmed coronavirus carriers in order to identify people they may have infected. The Mossad spy agency has also been working to help bring test kits to Israel from abroad.

According to the Health Ministry, as of Monday night, there have been at least 4,695 confirmed cases in Israel. Sixteen people have died, 79 people are in serious condition and 90 in moderate condition. The vast majority — 4,349 — displayed only light symptoms, and 161 people have fully recovered from the disease.

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