IDF dedicates 8 battalions to help police if national lockdown declared
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IDF dedicates 8 battalions to help police if national lockdown declared

Military establishes its own coronavirus testing lab to check hundreds of soldiers a day in a bid to relieve pressure on civilian facilities

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

Police officers in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem close shops and disperse public gatherings following government orders in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem close shops and disperse public gatherings following government orders in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces was gearing up Tuesday to assist the police enforce a full national lockdown if one were declared to combat the coronavirus pandemic, dedicating eight battalions — over 2,000 soldiers — to the cause, with the potential for more.

However, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman stressed that no such lockdown has yet been ordered and that the matter is still in the consideration and preparation stage.

Zilberman said the soldiers would act as an auxiliary force to the Israel Police, which will have the actual legal authority to enforce the lockdown. He said the IDF troops would not be armed.

“It’s not that kind of mission,” he said.

The eight battalions — one for each police district — would come from the IDF’s training bases, which have routinely provided auxiliary troops in times of war and national emergencies. Zilberman said the military was prepared to double the number of battalions dedicated to helping the police if necessary, but that such a decision was not yet in the offing.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi, center, visits a Golani Brigade training base on March 22, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

He said the soldiers were undergoing special training to prepare them for the potential assignment with the police.

“We’ve created a procedure for how we would operate together,” he said.

The military on Tuesday also opened an internal laboratory to test hundreds of IDF soldiers each day in order to relieve the pressure on civilian laboratories.

The lab, which had been used by the IDF Rabbinate to test DNA samples to identify the remains of soldiers, will at first only test soldiers suspected of carrying the virus, and then it will begin checking all soldiers in order to guarantee that units are free of the disease, Zilberman said.

“We are proud of the hard work we performed to convert a DNA laboratory for identifying remains of fallen soldiers into a laboratory that can identify the coronavirus,” IDF Chief Medical Officer Brig. Gen. Dr. Tarif Bader said in a statement.

Israeli troops operate a laboratory to test soldiers for the coronavirus on March 23, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

He said that 23 servicemembers in total are currently known to be sick with the disease, in addition to one soldier who had recovered completely and a second who was recently released from the IDF and was therefore no longer included in its tally.

Another 5,579 troops were in quarantine, a significant decrease from four days ago when 6,908 servicemembers were in quarantine. Zilberman said this was because of a large number of troops were released following their two-week isolation after returning from abroad.

He said the military was pressing on with its efforts to maintain its normal operational capabilities despite the virus: keeping troops confined to base to limit contact with the outside world, having soldiers work in discrete shifts in order to ensure normal operations even if one shift of troops gets infected, and carrying on with regular enlistment schedules.

He said this effort should help prevent the spread of the disease within IDF bases, but that “it’s not hermetic. It could happen to us. It probably will happen to us.”

As an example, he said that even though soldiers are being kept on their bases to prevent them from interacting with the outside world, “food deliveries still need to get in” — a potential source of infection.

Soldiers wrap up pallets of equipment as part of preparations for the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Zilberman said the IDF, mostly the Home Front Command, was also continuing to help civilian authorities combat the pandemic.

According to the spokesman, it appeared as though the IDF would soon take responsibility for housing any Israeli returning from abroad, as the government worked to fly home the hundreds to thousands of citizens still outside the country.

Zilberman said it was not yet clear if the military would be establishing dedicated “quarantine hotels” or if those requiring quarantine would be kept in hotels that have already been converted to house carriers of the coronavirus with light symptoms. The spokesman said some of those returning from abroad may also be put into home quarantine.

On Monday night, some 260 Israelis stranded in Italy were flown back to Ben Gurion Airport on a chartered flight and put into a hotel converted into such a coronavirus-carrier facility in the northern city of Tiberias.

Another group of Israelis who were in India was due to arrive in Israel shortly, Zilberman said.

The IDF was also continuing to work with the Magen David Adom ambulance service to perform tests on suspected coronavirus carriers, dedicating some 150 military vehicles so that MDA medics could perform at-home testing around the country.

Zilberman said the military was also preparing to dedicate 1,000 soldiers from the Home Front Command to assisting at-risk populations who are stuck in their homes, providing them with food or medicine. He said details of this plan were still being hashed out with local authorities, but the effort should begin shortly.

Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi decided to to move the military to a higher state of readiness, one normally reserved for preparation for an enemy attack, though the IDF stressed at the time that this was not in light of external threats but rather because of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Zilberman said the security situation in the Middle East had calmed in recent weeks in light of the coronavirus, which the spokesman said was a “restraining factor” in the region.

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