Israeli soldiers take a break at a northern training base last November. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

Invisible Enemy: How the IDF is Grappling with Coronavirus

Experts uniformly agree that despite unprecedented situation, Israel’s military capabilities remain intact

Whether fighting Hamas or Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip or conducting air strikes against Iranian assets in Syria, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is typically on high alert. The same applies to the current battle against a new, invisible enemy: coronavirus.

The IDF has progressively imposed tougher restrictions in a bid to curb a potential outbreak within its ranks. These include prohibiting soldiers from leaving training bases and forward outposts, in addition to checking the temperatures of those dealing with critical equipment.

Moreover, all soldiers have been grounded: They cannot travel abroad for any purpose; gatherings of more than 10, aside from operations, are a no go; and joint exercises with foreign militaries have been cancelled. Civilians are also barred from visiting bases without explicit approval, and only under extraordinary circumstances.

The moves come in parallel to the government’s implementation of severe regulations on both the public and private sectors, shuttering locations ranging from cafes and malls to holy sites. Government employees engaged in tasks deemed non-essential are being sent on unpaid leave until at least the Passover holiday in three weeks’ time, whereas private firms with more than 10 workers have been ordered to reduce the number of staff on-site by 70%.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry recommended that people not leave home unless absolutely necessary.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, confirmed that his cabinet had approved the use of controversial “digital tools” – mainly tracking technologies reserved for counter-terrorism purposes – for a 30-day period. The ostensible goal is to monitor past and future movements of potential carriers of coronavirus.

Overall, Israeli officials have confirmed at least 324 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the pathogen. It is estimated that about 60,000 residents are in quarantine in accordance with guidelines requiring all individuals returning from abroad, or who might have come in contact with a carrier, to confine themselves for two weeks.

With respect to the IDF, at least five soldiers have been infected and just under 3,700 personnel are in isolation. Among the latter are high-ranking officers – including one general – who nevertheless remain active using specialized communication devices to stay informed and relay orders.

“In terms of the ability to defend the home front, right now combatting the coronavirus is the major threat, although there will still be a focus on maintaining deterrence and acting if needed,” Uzi Dayan, a former IDF deputy chief of staff, explained to The Media Line.

“Ironically, this is perhaps one of the only circumstances in which the military might benefit from the country being so small,” he said.

“At the same time, the IDF is used to dealing with issues that are non-military,” Dayan said, referring to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s authorization to mobilize 2,000 reserve soldiers – 700 of whom have already reported for duty – to help civilian authorities enforce strict anti-coronavirus measures.

As an example, he cited troops who were tasked with assisting and securing masses of immigrants who needed to be placed in encampments after Israel’s establishment in 1948.

Meanwhile, the IDF’s General Staff is taking no risks, recently holding consultations on upholding capabilities amid the health crisis.

Notably, officials have highlighted that the Jewish state’s primary foes themselves seem, for the time being, preoccupied with coronavirus. Indeed, over the past week, there has been a notable drop in terror activity in the Gaza Strip. No cases of COVID-19 have been reported there, but the enclave is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

The IDF has also noted a decrease in Iranian operations in Syria.

Perhaps of more immediate concern, then, is the prospect of the IDF being unable to replenish personnel. While the draft intake planned for this month will reportedly proceed unimpeded, military officials have voiced concern that the outbreak will impact the next enlistment, which, in turn, could cause the one in August to be postponed.

Hanan Gefen, a former commander of the Intelligence Corps’ elite Unit 8200, believes that the IDF is taking the correct course to contend with an unprecedented situation.

“This epidemic is totally unique, so the military is continuing to check for possible coronavirus cases morning, noon and night while trying to seal itself off from the general population,” he said.

Regarding the reservists called up to help coordinate with the civilian population, Gefen stressed that they are not troops who would partake in important missions.

“We cannot say at the moment specifically how reserve soldiers are helping authorities,” an IDF spokesperson told The Media Line when queried about the call-up. “The full picture is not yet known because the demands are changing quickly.”

The spokesperson declined to comment on what strategies, if any, the military has adopted to guarantee preparedness, and whether this has precipitated any unconventional logistical maneuvering or the reinforcement of vital positions on the ground.

Gefen, however, was optimistic.

“The IDF must prevent the most pessimistic predictions from materializing,” he said, “and due to the quick decisions made by military leaders, it is probable that it will contain the coronavirus.”

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