As cops enforce Bnei Brak lockdown, IDF tasked with ‘civil assistance’ in city
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General says army likely to be deployed in more cities

As cops enforce Bnei Brak lockdown, IDF tasked with ‘civil assistance’ in city

Military not responsible for enforcing ‘restricted zone’ order in ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv; troops to help evacuate sick and elderly, but will not use force

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An IDF soldier visits an elderly Israeli woman as part of a military effort to assist the country's at-risk population during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
An IDF soldier visits an elderly Israeli woman as part of a military effort to assist the country's at-risk population during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Friday was formally tasked with providing “civil assistance” to residents of Bnei Brak, a major hotspot of the coronavirus, as police established checkpoints at the entrances and exits of the ultra-Orthodox city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

The head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, said the military anticipated being sent to additional parts of the country that were struggling with the pandemic, noting the town of Elad, Migdal Ha’Emek and parts of Jerusalem were possible locations.

“Bnei Brak is the first place, not the last,” he said. “There will be other places where you will see IDF troops operating. And that’s okay.”

On Thursday, the military said two battalions from its 98th Paratroopers Division would be sent to the city, and on Friday morning, the government officially approved the initiative.

Police set up temporary checkpoints at the entrance to the city of Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The several hundred IDF troops would not be tasked with enforcing the government’s order declaring the city a “restricted zone,” with limited travel permitted into and out of it, but would instead operate inside Bnei Brak, providing “civil assistance” to its residents, Yadai said.

The effort was being coordinated with the Bnei Brak municipality — specifically the head of the city’s coronavirus task force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa — with the Magen David Adom ambulance service, Health Ministry, Israel Police and other government offices, he said.

This would include helping to evacuate sick and elderly from the city, he said, adding, “No one will be evacuated by force, only voluntarily.”

Yadai said some 100 people have already been evacuated to quarantine facilities, but that it was not immediately clear if this effort would be kept limited or would expand to remove thousands of ill and at-risk residents from the city.

The Home Front Command chief said troops would also help perform additional coronavirus tests in Bnei Brak to better map the outbreak.

He stressed that while the city is effectively cut off, life within Bnei Brak is allowed to continue under the same restrictions as exist in the rest of the country, so people are still allowed to shop for food and other necessities. This means that while soldiers are delivering food and medicine to at-risk residents, they do not need to supply food to the entire population of roughly 200,000 people.

An IDF officer helps police run a checkpoint during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Home Front Command chief acknowledged that the military’s efforts in Bnei Brak are more “complex” than it would be in other parts of the country due to the specific nature of the ultra-Orthodox suburb.

“Things in that city work differently,” he said. “We’re adapting ourselves to their routines.”

This has included requiring to find better ways to provide information to residents as the military’s typical modes — through the internet and television — do not work in a community where computers and an internet connection are less common.

Yadai said the 98th Division was still preparing for its mission and likely wouldn’t be deployed until Sunday.

IDF soldiers deliver food to an elderly Israeli man as part of a military effort to assist the country’s at-risk population during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

He said that for now this will include one battalion from the Paratroopers Brigade and one battalion from the Commando Brigade, as well as additional troops providing logistics support, but that more would be sent if needed.

“The chief of staff’s order was: Anything I need, I get. If I need another two battalions, I’ll get them,” Yadai said.

On Friday, police said over 1,000 officers had been sent into the city to patrol, maintain and enforce the closure. Residents would not be allowed to leave the city except under special circumstances, officials said. Non-residents would not be permitted to enter.

Police were using drones and other monitoring methods to maintain the lockdown.

Police Chief Superintendent Roee Waldman, head of the Police Investigations Department, told Army Radio: “In the next few hours residents will feel a high presence of policemen and soldiers who will remove people to quarantine.”

He said if forces encountered resistance they were authorized to use “proportionate force.”

MK Yaakov Asher (Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, who lives in Bnei Brak, on Friday protested the use of armed police officers, asking Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose office oversees the police, to ban weapons at the checkpoints set up across the city.

During the closure, aid services and providers of essential supplies will be allowed in, as well as journalists. The closure will initially last for seven days, with the option to be extended by ministers by five days at a time.

The cabinet also approved the formation of a ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that will be charged with determining whether additional towns should be declared “restriction zones” in order to curb the outbreak.

The cabinet meeting was held over conference call. Netanyahu and Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov were in quarantine, after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Thursday.

With its population of 200,000, Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections of all Israeli cities in total numbers, and the highest rate by far per capita.

On Friday, the Health Ministry said there were 966 virus cases in Bnei Brak, 418 of which were confirmed in the past three days.

The isolation hotels, run by the Home Front Command, were being adapted to fit the lifestyles of the Haredi residents.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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