IDF gearing up for larger role in fighting virus in case of widespread outbreak

IDF gearing up for larger role in fighting virus in case of widespread outbreak

Military takes responsibility for country’s senior living facilities, forced to change enlistment dates due to pandemic

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

Israeli troops pack boxes of food as part of the military's preparations to support the country's supply lines in light of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli troops pack boxes of food as part of the military's preparations to support the country's supply lines in light of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday held a large-scale exercise simulating two different, feasible scenarios for the spread of the coronavirus: a gradual, manageable outbreak and a widespread, unruly one that will require massive involvement by the military.

Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Turgeman, the head of IDF Technological and Logistics Directorate, known by its Hebrew acronym, Atal, told reporters that the military was preparing for the possibility of the second scenario — however likely or unlikely it may be — in which it would have to establish field hospitals and take other drastic actions that it has so far avoided as the country’s civilian authorities have responded to the pandemic.

The military said representatives from the Health Ministry and the Shin Bet security service took part in the simulation.

According to IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi gave his deputy, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, 36 hours to develop initial operational plans in case of the widespread outbreak. Zilberman said he could not yet elaborate on what specific steps Zamir was considering.

Though civilian medical authorities have largely led the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the military has both been supporting those activities — providing vehicles and additional personnel to the Magen David Adom ambulance service — and has gradually become more involved in the national effort.

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

“The IDF is deployed in hundreds of sites, is helping on dozens of issues, and I’m telling you, we are ready to expand that responsibility,” Kohavi told representatives from the Health Ministry Sunday.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who had criticized the Health Ministry’s slow pace of testing, has pushed for the military to have a greater role in managing the crisis.

Beginning Tuesday, Israeli troops will take responsibility for the country’s senior living facilities, following a number of cases of coronavirus outbreaks in these homes, which were then left with limited personnel, Zilberman said.

The Home Front Command will coordinate the effort through its five district headquarters, while soldiers from units located in those districts will be in touch with the roughly 250 facilities and provide them with whatever is necessary, the spokesman said.

One commander and four soldiers will be assigned to each facility, he said.

A nursing home for the elderly in Jerusalem, April 15, 2008. (Anna Kaplan/ Flash90)

On Monday night, the government approved the deployment of some 700 mostly unarmed IDF soldiers to police districts across the country to help officers enforce the government’s partial lockdown beginning Tuesday morning.

According to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s office, the troops would conduct patrols with police officers. The soldiers will not carry weapons, except for commanding officers and those serving in West Bank settlements.

Zilberman said the military was also working to establish two new coronavirus facilities, which will be converted from hotels, to treat members of the ultra-Orthodox community who contract the disease and display only light symptoms.

These facilities — one in Bnei Brak and one in Beit Shemesh — will be in addition to the six such converted hotels that the IDF has been operating around the country, which currently hold over 1,000 people, both virus patients and people who need to be in monitored quarantine.

Attendees at a Bnei Brak funeral on March 29, 2020. (screen capture: Twitter)

The spokesman said the outbreak of the virus was forcing the military to alter its enlistment schedule, though the change was not expected to affect the military’s preparedness or readiness for war.

The enlistment of recruits bound for the navy’s officers course and its submarine course was moved up to April 1, while enlistment for the air force was moved up to April 22.

The draft for the IDF Medical Corps and for the soldiers who operate the military’s security cameras was postponed until April 19; the next day, the IDF’s logistics and maintenance units would enlist; the day after, recruits from military teleprocessing units and the Education Corps would enlist; on April 26, infantry trainers would enlist; and on April 30, those bound for the military’s Michve Alon base will enlist.

Turgeman, who is responsible for keeping the military fed, acknowledged that providing food for the IDF’s soldiers had become more difficult in light of the restrictions against large gatherings — a regulation that made operating the massive dining halls where most of the military’s meals are ordinarily served impossible.

Israeli troops pack boxes of food as part of the military’s preparations to support the country’s supply lines in light of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The general said that where possible, the military has reconfigured dining halls to allow as many soldiers as possible to eat in them while still abiding by the IDF’s internal restriction of only having up to 100 people in a dining hall at a time, seated with a gap between each person.

Where this is not possible, IDF kitchens have begun preparing meals in take-away silver foil trays — known in Israel by the Hebrew portmanteau hamgashiot — as well as bagged lunches, though Turgeman acknowledged that these are not a favorite among the troops.

“Soldiers don’t understand why a sandwich is a meal,” Turgeman said, noting that they come with a piece of fruit, a vegetable and a container of cheese or pudding.

He said that while these bagged lunches do not meet the military’s optimum health requirements, they are preferable to the alternative.

“I think the coronavirus is worse than the nutrition of a sandwich,” Turgeman said.

He noted that soldiers were not being forced to eat combat rations, save for those doing training exercises in the field.

Brig. Gen. Itzik Turgeman, who was appointed the army’s incoming head of the Technology and Logistics Directorate, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Turgeman also referred to the difficulties troops have been facing since the IDF ordered all those in combat units to remain on base — save for non-commissioned officers, some of whom have been granted weekend leave and vacation, to the envy and frustration of officers and conscripts.

The logistics chief said to make life easier for troops, hundreds of laundry machines had been delivered to IDF bases across the country.

“I didn’t even have a washing machine when I was a soldier and a platoon commander in Lebanon. I washed my clothes with Sintabon,” he said, referring to a classic Israeli laundry detergent.

Turgeman said the military was also gearing up for next month’s Passover holiday, when far more troops than usual will be celebrating the festival’s seder service on base.

“I don’t want people to think of this as a sad Passover. I want everyone to celebrate the holiday kehilchato,” he said, using a term from the Passover prayer book meaning roughly “as required.”

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