IDF to send paratrooper division into virus-stricken Bnei Brak to help residents
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IDF to send paratrooper division into virus-stricken Bnei Brak to help residents

Unit will not enforce lockdown, but rather provide food, medicine and other services; military says over 12,000 troops involved in national pandemic response

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

An IDF officer helps police run a checkpoint during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
An IDF officer helps police run a checkpoint during the coronavirus outbreak on April 2, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it was preparing to deploy its 98th Paratroopers Division to the coronavirus hotspot of Bnei Brak to assist residents amid a lockdown of the area.

The military said the troops — from the Paratroopers Brigade and Commando Brigade — will not enforce restrictions on the area, but instead serve under the Home Front Command to provide food, medicine and other services to those inside and to assist in the evacuation of some residents of the Tel Aviv suburb, which has seen a large and growing outbreak of the disease in recent days.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said the soldiers — two battalions’ worth, meaning several hundred — were undergoing specialty training to prepare for the assignment.

Zilberman said the troops will be outfitted with only basic protective gear — masks and gloves — despite assessments that a large percentage of the city’s population has the coronavirus, but has not yet been tested.

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

That appeared to be happening, with the IDF taking a greater and greater part in the effort.

On Tuesday, some 700 mostly unarmed IDF soldiers were deployed to police districts across the country to help officers enforce the government’s partial lockdown.

An IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem to check Israelis are not violating restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat//Flash90)

The troops have conducted patrols and set up roadblocks with police officers. The soldiers do not carry weapons, except for commanding officers and those serving in West Bank settlements.

Zilberman said that, in total, the military has over 12,000 soldiers who “get up each morning to fight the coronavirus” — responding to questions on hotlines, bringing food and medicine to the elderly and disabled, driving medics to perform tests, and operating quarantine facilities across the country.

“Next week there will be much, much more,” he said.

The spokesman said the military has begun in earnest its operation to assist Israel’s elderly and disabled, which kicked off earlier this week.

IDF soldiers deliver food to an elderly Israeli man 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)

Under that effort, roughly 1,000 soldiers were aiding some 200 assisted living facilities around the country, providing these more vulnerable populations with the help they need during this period, when they are unable to leave their homes, he said.

One commander and four soldiers have been assigned to each facility, Zilberman said.

Additional troops were working to help those forced to remain at home to do their grocery shopping and perform other necessary tasks.

There were nearly 100 diagnosed coronavirus cases within the military, Zilberman said, while thousands more were in quarantine, including IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and two other major generals, who came into contact with a confirmed carrier.

He said Kohavi and the other generals were able to work from their offices as normal despite being in quarantine.

Zilberman said the military was preparing to step up its internal efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, notably by increasing enforcement of existing rules and likely by extending its current ban on combat troops leaving their bases.

“We will make punishments more severe [for violating social distancing rules],” he said.

Last month, the IDF ordered all soldiers serving on combat bases to prepare to remain there for at least 30 days. Zilberman said the military would likely extend that further.

The increased number of troops on base has required the military to distribute 25 percent more food than normal, including 40% more fried chicken patties and 80% more chicken breasts, Zilberman said, who added that the IDF was not facing any food shortages.

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)

The IDF was also continuing the use of its so-called capsules method, in which troops were divided into self-contained shifts that operate without physical contact between one another. The method is meant to ensure that if soldiers in one “capsule” becomes infected with the coronavirus, the other ones can continue working unhindered.

Zilberman said that any soldiers operating outside their bases would wear face masks, as recommended by the government, but that the IDF was still determining if such a measure would be required within military facilities.

As of Thursday night, there have been 6,808 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel, with a death toll of 34. According to the Health Ministry, 107 patients were in serious condition, while another 127 were in moderate condition. The rest had either light symptoms or had already recovered from the disease.

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