The Israel Defense Forces’ 98th Paratroopers Division primary mission is delivering roughly 1,000 tons (over 2 million pounds) of food to needy residents of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak before the upcoming Passover holiday on Wednesday evening, a senior military official said Monday.
This is expected to be an incredibly difficult task, requiring the hundreds of soldiers operating inside the coronavirus-stricken Tel Aviv suburb to work days and nights to get the food to the people who need it in time, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As of Monday afternoon, the 98th Division had delivered upwards of 15,000 prepackaged meals — made by private caterers — to residents of Bnei Brak, which has emerged as one of the country’s worst-hit COVID-19 hotspots, the officer said.
In the next two days, the unit plans to deliver roughly 1,000 tons of raw ingredients, including hundreds of tons of vegetables, as well as hygienic products like toilet paper, to those in the city requiring assistance, based on information from the municipality, welfare services and from individual requests given to soldiers, the official said.
The senior officer told reporters that while this effort is the 98th Division’s current focus, it is not the only task in its mission, dubbed “Operation Laser Beam.” The soldiers — from the divisions’ Paratroopers Brigade and Commando Brigade — were also working to assist medical authorities to evacuate confirmed coronavirus carriers and otherwise help local authorities.
“[Passover] is just a point where we’ll halt activities out of respect for the holiday and then we’ll continue [operating],” the officer said.
He said it was not yet clear when the military will complete its operations inside Bnei Brak. The officer said he was not sufficiently familiar with the IDF’s plans for sending troops to other cities around the country to comment on the matter.
The official said the 98th Division had been given less than three days — from Thursday night to 8 a.m. Sunday — to prepare for this assignment, one far outside the paratrooper unit’s ordinary combat missions. This included training the troops on how to operate inside a civilian atmosphere and teaching them a smattering of Yiddish phrases to help them communicate with the Haredi population (though the vast majority speak Hebrew).
Though residents and officials of Bnei Brak, as well as some ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, have publicly condemned and criticized the military’s presence inside the city, the officer says that his troops have yet to encounter a single “irregular incident” of violence or opposition.
“The opposite is true,” the officer said, citing cases of residents crying with happiness upon receiving assistance from troops.
Videos from the city, which has effectively been closed off from the rest of the country, showed residents providing troops with food and praise, as well as soldiers giving children candy in a bid to encourage goodwill — as much of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community has a strained, or at least complicated, relationship with the military.
כל ילד שיפחד מהחיילים שנכנסו לבני ברק יקבל סוכריות . החיילים הצטיידו בשקיות ממתקים במיוחד כדי להפיג את החששות. גם להם זה מפגש ראשון ומיוחד. pic.twitter.com/HbrK60nx6i
— nir dvori (@ndvori) April 5, 2020
The senior official said that despite initial indications that the soldiers would carry their firearms during their operation, it was ultimately decided not to have them do so. “We have no guns, not pistols and not rifles,” he said.
The officer said it has been an “emotional” experience for the 98th Division’s troops to operate in the city.
The officer recounted one case in which an officer during a debriefing admitted to violating an order against entering people’s apartments during their food distribution efforts.
“The officer said when he delivered one of the packages, an old woman answered a door and said she wasn’t strong enough to carry the package. So I had to go into the apartment. I told her to back up so I wouldn’t infect her,” he said.
On Sunday IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi visited Bnei Brak, meeting with the officers in charge of Operation Laser Beam.
99.90 מילדי בני ברק (כולל סאטמר) מקבלים חינוך כזה, השאר באחריות הרווחה והמשטרה. pic.twitter.com/E7T1Y67z2P
— יענקי פרבר (@yankihebrew) April 4, 2020
“The phrase ‘people’s army’ takes on a different importance in light of IDF soldiers performing this life-saving mission. It is an expression of reciprocal responsibility for the people of Israel. We will continue to increase our assistance to local government, to anywhere needed, widely and quickly. I am proud of your actions,” Kohavi said during his visit to the area.
The army chief, who was released from self-quarantine over the weekend, met with the commander of the 98th Division, Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkleman, and other officers. He also observed some of the food distribution operations and heard about the unit’s plans for future activities, the military said.
The city of Bnei Brak, with its roughly 200,000 residents, has one of Israel’s largest outbreaks of the coronavirus with 1,323 confirmed cases as of Monday morning — nearly as many as Jerusalem, which has the largest tally according to Health Ministry data from Monday. Bnei Brak is one-fifth the size of the capital.
Thousands more people in the city are thought to possibly have the disease but remain untested, either due to medical authorities’ inability to do so or out of individuals’ fears of being quarantined.
Many in the ultra-Orthodox community initially dismissed social distancing regulations, which officials say has led to the high rate of infection. The disease has claimed the lives of at least 55 people in Israel as of Monday afternoon, with over 8,600 people confirmed to be carriers of the virus.
Starting early Sunday, police and military forces blocked access to Route 481, a main Tel Aviv metropolitan area artery that runs through the city. The road, also known as Jabotinsky Street and normally one of the country’s most congested thoroughfares, was closed off between the Geha Interchange and Ben Gurion Junction in Ramat Gan.
Officials also announced that public transportation leading into or out of the city was being cut off, though some buses would continue to run inside the city. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the move was ordered by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat.
Within the city, residents are under the same restrictions as in the rest of the country, allowing them to shop for food and medicine themselves. Drone footage filmed by the Haaretz daily in the city shows largely deserted streets, with a small number of buses, cars and some foot traffic.
The military was also preparing to help residents prepare for this week’s Passover holiday, setting up sites to burn leavened products in accordance with Jewish law and delivering the specialty foods needed to observe the festival.
The future of the Bnei Brak closure was not entirely clear as of Monday, with some officials pushing for large-scale evacuations of the city’s sick and elderly, while others argued in favor of more aggressive testing to better map and contain the spread of the disease within the city.
Bnei Brak’s closure will initially last for seven days, with the option to be extended by ministers by five days at a time, though officials anticipated it would last several weeks.
Though Bnei Brak is the first Israeli city to face a closure, it is not expected to be the last, with several other ultra-Orthodox cities identified as possible locations, including Elad, Migdal Ha’emek and several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
Reports Monday indicated the entire country could be put under full lockdown for Passover to prevent people from visiting family.
The country has been under partial lockdown since last month, with people only allowed to venture further than 100 meters from their home for work or essential needs. Police last week began fining people who did not comply.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.