The Israel Defense Forces called off a major air defense exercise with the United States on Wednesday night, a day after it launched, following stricter safety restrictions issued by the Health Ministry aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
The biennial Juniper Cobra exercise — one of the IDF’s largest international drills — was scheduled to be held over the course of 10 days, with thousands of American and Israeli soldiers taking part around the world.
On Wednesday night, the military announced it was halting the exercise with the US European Command (EUCOM), apparently as many of the American troops taking part in it came from Germany, which earlier in the day was added to the Health Ministry’s list of countries from which visitors are not allowed to enter Israel and returning Israeli are required to enter a 14-day self-quarantine.
The Health Ministry has also banned gatherings of over 100 people for people who have returned from anywhere abroad in the past 14 days.
“In light of the Health Ministry’s instructions and a situational assessment regarding the spread of the coronavirus, and in close coordination with EUCOM, the [IDF] chief of staff and the EUCOM commander decided to halt the exercise,” the IDF said in a statement.
“The IDF appreciates and values the close cooperation with the US military and anticipates joint exercises in the future,” the military said.
This was the second joint exercise with the US military that was canceled by the IDF in light of concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Earlier this week, the military preemptively called off an exercise between American paratroopers stationed out of Italy — where there has been a high incidence of the disease — and IDF Ground Forces.
On Wednesday night, the Israeli military also announced that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was postponing a scheduled trip to the United States due to Health Ministry recommendations against travel abroad.
The Juniper Cobra exercise has been held every other year since 2001 and is one of the IDF’s largest international drills. The exercise simulates a large-scale missile attack on the State of Israel, with air defense units from the IDF and EUCOM working together to intercept the incoming projectiles and members of the IDF Home Front Command practicing responses to such an assault.
In total some 3,500 American and Israeli soldiers were due to take part in the exercise, which will be held in Israel, Europe and the US. Some 600 American troops arrived in Israel for the exercise, coming from the US and Germany, while another 1,900 US military soldiers would have participated in the drill from Europe and the US.
Approximately 1,000 Israeli soldiers from the IDF’s Aerial Defense Array, logistics units, medical units and other units in the military were meant to take part in the drill.
As the virus spreads across the globe, Israel has tried to prevent it from reaching and spreading throughout the country, banning entry to visitors from several countries where the disease has taken hold, mostly east Asian and western European nations.
The Health Ministry has also encouraged Israelis not to travel to those countries and required those returning from them to self-quarantine for two weeks.
The IDF on Monday took the Health Ministry recommendation further and explicitly forbade troops and employees from visiting those countries unless absolutely necessary.
Israel regularly conducts various training drills with the US military in the country, including air force exercises and missile defense drills.
Last month, the IDF confirmed that soldiers from one of the East Asian countries hit the hardest by the disease were allowed to come to the Jewish state and participate in a military exercise with Israeli troops at a base in the south.
After emerging in China late last year, the virus has now infected upwards of 90,000 people worldwide and killed approximately 3,200, most of them in China and Iran, though cases have been reported in 81 countries and territories.
So far 15 people in Israel have been diagnosed with the disease, and tens of thousands have been quarantined.
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced that gatherings of over 5,000 people would henceforth not be permitted and advised Israelis to avoid personal contact, including shaking hands.
The Health Ministry has faced criticism for its extreme measures, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country. Ministry officials have said they prefer to take a strict line than be sorry later.
Agencies contributed to this report.