IDF to step up role in national coronavirus response as cases spike

Troops to again work with police to assist in enforcing mask-wearing, social distancing; Home Front Command to deploy soldiers in cities with high infection rates

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

Soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command operate in the Druze town of Daliat el-Carmel in northern Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
Soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command operate in the Druze town of Daliat el-Carmel in northern Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces prepared to step up its involvement in the national coronavirus response as the number of cases spiked in recent weeks, prompting concerns that the government may declare another total lockdown for the entire country to slow the rate of infections.

Beginning on Monday morning, some 500 IDF soldiers will again begin working with the Israel Police to enforce lockdowns in cities with high rates of infection and social distancing and mask-wearing elsewhere in the country, Maj. Gen. Uri Gordin, the head of the IDF Home Front Command, told reporters Friday.

Gordin clarified that the soldiers — coming from platoons that are in the midst of training — would not directly enforce these measures but would only assist police officers indirectly in this effort.

Recent weeks have seen a surge in coronavirus infections, topping 3,000 new confirmed cases on some days, leading Health Ministry officials to warn that a full national lockdown — like the one put in place during the initial wave — may be necessary to curb the outbreak.

Head of the IDF Home Front Command Uri Gordin in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We are making every effort to prevent a general lockdown on the population,” Gordin said.

According to Gordin, whose unit leads the military’s coronavirus response, the IDF will focus on expanding its operations in so-called “red” cities, those with the highest rates of infection, and other towns at risk of seeing major outbreaks. On Thursday night, the government announced that it would be enforcing lockdowns within these 30 “red” cities, limiting the movement of residents within them, beginning Monday.

Gordin said the IDF’s role in these areas includes providing direct assistance to their at-risk populations, giving them food and medicine, as well as working with local governments and police to enforce the lockdowns.

Soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command operate in Israel in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military’s community liaisons were also working with local community leaders, both politicians and religious leaders — rabbis in ultra-Orthodox towns and imams in the Arab ones,” Gordin said.

The Home Front Command was also increasing its existing efforts to provide information to Israelis about the coronavirus and new restrictions. In addition, the military was stepping up its role in testing the population for the coronavirus, Gordin said.

On Thursday night, members of the so-called coronavirus cabinet — a limited forum of ministers — decided that some form of lockdown would come into effect in “red” cities beginning on Monday, according to widespread Hebrew media reports.

The restrictions under discussion for the 30 municipalities included banning entry and exit, keeping residents within 500 meters of their homes, stopping public transportation, and closing non-essential businesses and all schools save for daycare facilities and special education programs.

Cars pull into an IDF Home Front Command-run coronavirus testing station, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

Addressing the country’s spiraling situation in a press conference shortly after the cabinet meting, the government’s coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, visibly distraught, implored the public to start treating the situation seriously.

“This is a message to all of Israel: No weddings! No mass gatherings! No dismissal [of guidelines] at any restaurant or anywhere!” he said, his voice rising. “I’m sorry to be emotional. This is a pivotal moment… All of Israel is at war. Illness numbers that climb from 2,000 to 3,000 in one day should worry us all.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 3, 2020. (Screen capture/Health Ministry livestream)

“Anyone who doesn’t put an a mask and who disregards [instructions] is spitting in the face of doctors and nurses who are working 24 hours a day at coronavirus wards,” Gamzu added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video statement confirming the coronavirus cabinet decision. He said that though over the past month, Israel’s morbidity rate has been “very high,” it had remained relatively stable. But “in recent days a rise began and [there was] a very dramatic rise yesterday.”

He urged Israelis to work with authorities “to block this sickness.”

Though there is no official word yet on which cities will be locked down, the 30 cities and towns currently designated as “red” are: Nazareth, Bnei Brak, Tiberias, Abu Snan, Umm al-Fahm, Elad, Aabalin, Buqata, Beit Jann, Jaljulya, Jatt, Daliyat al-Karmel, Zemer, Taibe, Tira, Kasra-Samia, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre, Kafr Bara, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Qassem, Lakiya, Sheikh Danun, Maale Iron, Ein Mahil, Assafiya, Arara, Fureidis, Qalansawe, Rechasim and Kfar Aza.

Many of the towns are predominantly ultra-Orthodox and Arab, two segments of the population that have been hit hard by the virus.

Health Ministry figures released Thursday showed that the national death toll since the start of the pandemic has been highest in the country’s capital: 149 of the 976 fatalities were Jerusalem residents. It was followed by the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, where 89 have died; Tel Aviv, where 64 have died; and Bat Yam, where 42 fatalities have been counted.

Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh) team wearing protective clothes in the coronavirus ward of Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh), in Be’er Ya’akov, southeast of Tel Aviv, August 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Just over 60 percent of the deaths, 601, have been individuals between the ages of 70 and 90-years-old, while 194 were patients between the ages of 90 and 102-years-old. Coronavirus fatalities between ages 50-70 have accounted for 150 of the total deaths, while 20 people between ages 30-50 have passed away from the virus. Only five have died between ages 5-19.

At the same time, a separate report from the Central Bureau of Statistics revealed that despite the deaths resulting from the pandemic, there has been no spike in Israel’s overall death rate between January and July of this year, compared to the same period in the previous five years. However, some health policy experts criticized this comparison as inappropriate as it included two months — January and February — in which there were no coronavirus deaths whatsoever.

The Health Ministry reported over 3,000 new daily cases on Wednesday, a record high, apparently contributing to the drastic measure decided upon by ministers.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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