IDF cancels leave for most soldiers as infection rates on bases soar

Military says rule will not apply to open bases, units with no virus cases or units with 85% vaccination

Israeli soldiers at the empty Upper Galilee Mall, in Hatzor Haglilit, January 10, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers at the empty Upper Galilee Mall, in Hatzor Haglilit, January 10, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces announced Tuesday that it was canceling army leave with immediate effect, the first time the measure has been used in the current, third lockdown, as cases proliferated in military bases.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi made the declaration a day after the army reported 2,406 soldiers and military employees with COVID-19, all in mild condition, with the infection rate doubling in 10 days. Among the patients are two commanders with the rank of major general.

Another 12,549 servicemembers were in quarantine as of Sunday.

The move would not affect soldiers serving on so-called open bases, who go home most nights, but would only be applied to those on “closed bases,” who live in their units for extended periods.

It would also not affect units with no confirmed cases, or units where at least 85 percent of its members have received their second vaccine shot at least a week ago. According to clinical trials, vaccines only reach full efficacy a number of days after the second shot.

“Exemptions will only be approved by the commander of the Operations Directorate,” the IDF said.

Troops on open bases would continue to operate on a system of “capsules” — shifts of soldiers with no contact between them — to ensure that if any servicemembers became infected with the virus, it would not spread widely.

The move took effect immediately on Tuesday, and the IDF didn’t say when it was set to end.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks during an Israeli Navy ceremony in Haifa, on March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

The military, which canceled leave on two previous occasions since the pandemic began, has been criticized for failing to impose the measure thus far during Israel’s third wave of infections, which has been worse than the previous two, aided by new and more infectious strains of the coronavirus.

The IDF had hoped a “differential” policy to deal specifically with virus hotspots would curb the outbreak among soldiers, but the result has been soldiers seeing their families frequently, causing infections to migrate both into and out of military bases.

The extend of the outbreak and quarantines among soldiers have been harming some of the army’s operations in both combat and non-combat units. Specially designated quarantine bases have filled up, and many soldiers have been sent home, putting the burden on their families.

Channel 13 news reported Monday that least 110 new recruits from the Paratroopers Brigade tested positive at an army base in the south, the IDF’s worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

The military acknowledged not recognizing the outbreak quickly enough, having believed the complaints about various symptoms had been due to side effects of the vaccine. Some 30% of COVID-19 tests performed on the base returned a positive result, alarming officials who were working to conduct more widespread tests throughout the base and quarantine all virus carriers. The report did not clarify the extent of the vaccination program on the base.

Despite the country being under lockdown for almost a month, infections in the general population have remained sky-high. Ministers voted in the early hours of Monday morning to extend the nationwide closure until Friday morning at 7 a.m., and to keep Ben Gurion Airport closed until Sunday.

Ministers are to meet on Wednesday afternoon at 2 p.m. to discuss the lockdown terms. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to extend the closure beyond Friday, according to Channel 13. However, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party is likely to strongly oppose any such extension.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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