IDF ramps up involvement in national virus response, scales back reserves
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IDF ramps up involvement in national virus response, scales back reserves

Military doubles number of troops helping police enforce country’s partial lockdown, postpones large exercises in light of ongoing COVID-19 crisis

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

Police officers and Israeli soldiers at a temporary "checkpoint" in Jerusalem, to check people are not disobeying the government's orders on a partial lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Police officers and Israeli soldiers at a temporary "checkpoint" in Jerusalem, to check people are not disobeying the government's orders on a partial lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, April 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces has expanded its part in the national effort against coronavirus, doubling the number of troops assisting police enforce the partial lockdown in the country and taking over the management of the nation’s geriatric facilities.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said Monday that an additional 700 troops have begun working alongside police — bringing the total up to roughly 1,400 — to ensure that Israelis are abiding by government regulations against large gatherings and travel outside their homes, except to perform a limited list of necessary tasks, like shopping for food and medicine.

These troops will also largely be unarmed, acting as auxiliary forces to police, who retain the legal authority to make arrests and issue fines.

Zilberman said the military has also taken responsibility for some 450 geriatric facilities around the country in accordance with a government directive.

Roughly 18,000 soldiers were taking part in this effort, he said. They will not be working directly with the residents of these facilities, but will instead help their staff to better protect themselves and their patients from the coronavirus.

An IDF soldier visits an elderly Israeli woman as part of a military effort to assist the country’s at-risk population during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

This will include screening people before they are able to enter these facilities, sanitizing any areas where an infected person has been, and teaching staff how to properly wear and maintain protective gear, according to Zilberman.

The IDF spokesman said that earlier in the day the IDF General Staff held a meeting to discuss the military’s training schedule in light of the coronavirus pandemic, finding that much of it will have to change due to the new circumstances.

The main result will be across the board cuts to the military’s reserve efforts, canceling all exercises through at least June, with the possibility of calling them off through August, and canceling all operational deployments for 22 reserve battalions through August, Zilberman said.

Ordinarily, reserve units perform some operational deployments in the West Bank, freeing up conscripted units for additional training. In light of this decision, training of conscripted units will be shortened by several weeks, the spokesman said.

In addition, the army decided to postpone a number of large exercises planned for the coming months, moving them to either the end of this year or the beginning of next.

The spokesman acknowledged that these changes, along with the deployment of troops as part of the national effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic, including many soldiers currently in training programs, would negatively affect their preparedness, but said that the damage should not be insurmountable.

For example, many of the troops from the IDF’s 98th Paratroopers Division currently taking part in the assistance effort in the virus-stricken city of Bnei Brak came from units currently going through advanced training.

“We are harming training, by a week or so, but we should still be able to accredit everyone,” Zilberman said.

The spokesman said that just over 100 IDF soldiers were ill with coronavirus — all of them with light symptoms — as of Monday, while another roughly 3,200 were in quarantine, including one major general.

Yet he said this had not yet affected the military’s operational capability. “We haven’t canceled a single mission,” he said.

As of Monday, there have been 8,611 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel, with a death toll of 56. According to the Health Ministry, 141 patients were in serious condition, while another 191 were in moderate condition. The rest had either light symptoms or had already recovered from the disease.

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