500 armed soldiers to join police in enforcing coronavirus restrictions
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500 armed soldiers to join police in enforcing coronavirus restrictions

In unexplained reversal, troops will carry weapons as they help cops throughout the country beginning Sunday; servicemen to come from 8 training companies

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

Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks against the coronavirus, at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli border police wear protective gear and masks against the coronavirus, at the Ein Yael Checkpoint, near the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some 500 soldiers will be deployed across the country beginning Sunday to assist police in enforcing the government’s latest restrictions on movement to stem the coronavirus pandemic, the Israel Defense Forces said Friday.

The troops will be armed. The military did not immediately explain its full reversal in the decision to have the troops carry weapons, having previously said that the soldiers would be unarmed as they would be serving solely in an auxiliary role to the police.

This appeared to be a first step toward preparing for a full national lockdown, in which the military would deploy an additional 2,000-3,000 troops to assist police.

The 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.

An Israel Police officer in protective gear is deployed in Jerusalem on March 26, 2020. (Israel Police)

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

The number of troops that the military said would assist police was less than the 650 soldiers that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan had said would be deployed earlier this week.

Since Wednesday 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.

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.

An IDF spokesperson said the military was prepared to double the number of battalions dedicated to helping the police if necessary.

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.

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 Friday morning, there have been 3,035 confirmed cases in Israel. Ten people have died, 49 people are in serious condition and 60 in moderate condition. The vast majority — 2,838 — displayed only light symptoms. Seventy-nine people have fully recovered.

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