The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday it was adopting stricter restrictions on troops and military installations and was preparing to roll out more as it fears the COVID-19 outbreak will worsen.
The restrictions will keep troops who travel abroad away from their units for two weeks, clamp down on who can visit bases, bar parents from enlistment centers, and significantly curb the scope of ceremonies in a bid to keep the the virus at bay.
IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the coronavirus has not yet caused a major disruption to the IDF’s activities, though there are concerns that it may do so in the future.
According to Zilberman, while individual soldiers are being affected by the quarantine orders, their units are able to continue as normal.
“These shutdowns aren’t affecting the IDF’s fitness in a way that needs to worry anybody,” he said.
As part of the military’s new limitations, any soldier returning from a trip abroad — regardless of the country — will be barred from their unit for two weeks. “They don’t need to be in quarantine, but they can’t come to the IDF,” Zilberman said.
The military was also setting up an internal hospitalization unit for soldiers who contract the disease, he said.
At this stage, this facility will be designed to hold at most several dozen soldiers, Zilberman said.
In total, some 2,100 soldiers are currently in quarantine, most of them due to personal trips abroad, including a battalion commander. This marks a noticeable jump from the military’s previous statistic, which Zilberman said was a result of additional countries being added to the list of those requiring isolation. Another 300 soldiers have completed their required two-week isolation and returned to their units. One soldier has so far been diagnosed with the disease.
In the longer term, the IDF was preparing for the possibility that the coronavirus may become a full-blown national outbreak, in which case military bases would be used as field hospitals, Zilberman said.
In such a situation, IDF troops would also likely be called on to assist the Israel Police enforce quarantines on cities and towns with high incidences of the disease, he said.
In addition, the military was preparing to be called upon to assist the country’s health care system and to provide food and other necessities to Israelis if needed.
In terms of more immediate concerns, the head of the IDF Ground Forces was preparing to alter the military’s training schedule in light of the virus, particularly for reserve units, Zilberman said.
The spokesperson said the IDF would change its protocols for allowing civilian contractors and visitors onto army bases, requiring them to first fill out a screening questionnaire. A panel of questions will also be presented to troops entering headquarters and other sensitive offices.
Beginning later this month, the military will bar relatives and friends from accompanying their loved ones to enlistment centers when they join the military.
Ceremonies and conferences have also been limited as much as possible, and civilians will not be allowed to attend them. “Any unnecessary event will be canceled,” the military said.
In light of blowback to this proposal, Zilberman said the military planned to livestream the events on the internet so that family members could at least watch them.
Separately, a lockdown of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, which saw a large outbreak of the virus last week, will remain in place until further notice, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in a statement.
According to the spokesperson, as of Monday afternoon, the IDF intended to reopen the crossings between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Wednesday, which were closed beginning Sunday for this week’s Purim holiday.
The military announced it was closing Israel’s rarely used but still technically active border crossings with Lebanon and Syria until further notice.
On Sunday, the IDF Home Front Command held an exercise simulating how the spread of the virus will affect Israel’s health care system.
Zilberman said the military planned to conduct additional simulations and war games in the coming days.
Last week, Zilberman said the military’s ultimate goal was to “ensure the fitness of the IDF and prevent damage to it.”
He said the military was prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to ensure the functioning of the IDF, prevent the spread of the disease within it and assist in the national response.
“If a soldier had the virus and was in contact with his company and we have to [quarantine] the company, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
All international exercises — both ones the IDF is participating in abroad and those being hosted in Israel — have been canceled.
The military also put in place a blanket ban on foreign travel for all troops — conscripts and career soldiers alike — though some exceptions may be made under specific circumstances.
IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir was tasked with leading the military’s response to the virus, alongside the Operations Directorate, which is responsible for the IDF’s international relations; the Medical Corps; and the Home Front Command, which works closely with civilian emergency response services.
After emerging in China late last year, the virus has now infected over 100,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,400, most of them in China and Iran, though cases have been reported in countries and territories around the globe. Several dozen people in Israel have been diagnosed with the disease, and tens of thousands have been quarantined.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.