IDF orders new safety measures as 3,700 troops quarantined, including a general

IDF orders new safety measures as 3,700 troops quarantined, including a general

Some soldiers to be confined to base, others to work in shifts; military to check temperatures of visitors to ‘critical facilities’

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

Illustrative. Soldiers of the Bardales Battalion listen to their commander during a training exercise in southern Israel, on July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative. Soldiers of the Bardales Battalion listen to their commander during a training exercise in southern Israel, on July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday announced it was stepping up its restrictions on soldiers in a bid to prevent the coronavirus from affecting the military, preventing troops from leaving so-called “closed bases” and checking the temperature of anyone visiting bases housing sensitive equipment.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters that roughly 3,700 service members were in quarantine as of Monday afternoon, including one major general, Itai Virob, the commander of the military colleges.

The military has set up specialized communication equipment for the unspecified number of senior officers — colonels and above — who are currently in quarantine, he said.

The 117 lone soldiers — service members who are not supported financially by their parents or do not have family in the country — currently in quarantine will be given the option of being housed at the military’s resort in the coastal town of Givat Olga or on a kibbutz, Zilberman said.

Soldiers and medics operate a call center specifically meant to respond to cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus on March 15, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The spokesman said the pandemic has not seriously damaged the military’s operational capabilities. He said that while there were a large number of troops in quarantine, they came from all over the military, meaning that not even one IDF company has been taken out of service because of the virus.

Zilberman said the IDF’s main goal at this time was limiting contact between soldiers and civilians and interactions between troops, in order to slow or stop the spread of the virus within the military.

To that end, the IDF said it was keeping all troops who serve on “closed bases” — generally, training bases and forward outposts — from leaving base for at least the next month.

Soldiers serving on “open bases,” who do not sleep on their bases, have begun working in shifts — with no physical contact between them — in order to ensure that the military’s operations can continue unabated even if some soldiers become infected with the disease, Zilberman said.

The IDF will also begin taking the temperatures and requiring questionnaires of anyone visiting “critical facilities” in order to ensure they are not displaying symptoms of the virus, he said.

Zilberman said the military was continuing to draft new soldiers as scheduled, but was preparing for the possibility that the outbreak of the virus may affect future enlistments, particularly those scheduled for this summer.

Incoming IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman speaks at a ceremony in which he took over for outgoing spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis on September 15, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The spokesman said the IDF was largely abiding by the Health Ministry’s instructions to avoid close physical contact, with a number of approved exceptions.

For example, the military was permitting some training sessions to be held in groups larger than 10 — the largest number of people who are supposed to gather in one place. But meetings would still be limited to the designated 10 people.

Zilberman said the IDF also allowed troops to gather in groups of more than 100 in open spaces, where there is less chance of spreading the virus.

These measures were taken following extensive consultations between the IDF’s top brass and experts in the field of medicine and epidemiology, according to the spokesman.

Roughly 700 reservists have been called up to assist the IDF in its efforts to counter the coronavirus, almost all of them from the IDF Home Front Command.

The IDF has principally focused on maintaining its operational capabilities in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, but the military was also preparing to step in and help civilian authorities respond to the disease in the general public.

The military was also working to assist soldiers and officers with children who could no longer go to school due to government restrictions by encouraging commanders to give these service members as much time off as possible.

Overall, over 50,000 Israelis were quarantined in their homes across the country, as the virus continued to spread, with the total number of infected people rising to 255 as of Monday afternoon. Due to the relatively long time it takes for symptoms to develop, health officials believe that more people have contracted the virus, but haven’t yet been diagnosed.

The IDF’s instructions came after the government headed by interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced stricter measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures included transitioning staff at workplaces deemed nonessential to work from home, further limiting public gatherings and movement, shutting down malls and other leisure businesses, and shuttering kindergartens and private daycares in addition to schools and universities, which were ordered closed for at least the next month.

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