It’s come to this: The whole country on lockdown, the civilian population locked away in their homes, hiding from a deadly and invisible enemy. The only people on the street are police officers and IDF troops. It’s World War C.
The coronavirus crisis, a global pandemic on a level not seen since the Spanish flu in 1918, reminds many of the 2013 zombie movie World War Z. For Israelis, the “Jerusalem scene,” in which healthy Jews and Arabs are quarantined in the Old City singing songs of peace until zombies breach the walls, is extremely poignant.
It is as though the movie has come to life, but instead of the enemy being zombies, Israel is afraid that the invisible enemy - Coronavirus - could breach its walls and infect the population, as it did in Asia.
Israel had quickly closed its borders and quarantined all travellers returning to the country for two weeks. But the virus seeped in, and slowly the numbers of those infected with coronavirus started to rise. At the time of this article’s writing, 2,000 are reported sick and five are dead.
On Wednesday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett warned that Israel is facing “severe morbidity levels” in the coming days.
“We are in accelerated growth in patients in serious condition; the number of positive tests is increasing. Severe morbidity levels are approaching,” he said. “Within 10 days there will be a significant rate of serious patients, but this is not a matter of fate. We can work to change the situation."
ISRAEL DIDN’T hesitate to call on it’s security services to help in the fight against corona.
Senior defense officials have repeated that the IDF is "ready and willing to do so immediately,” and that it has stepped up preparations in case the Defense Ministry is given the order to battle against corona.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi ordered the military to move to a higher state of readiness, one normally reserved for preparation for an enemy attack, and the IDF updated its protocol for natural disasters.
The IDF named its operation against coronavirus “Ray of Light.”
The government called on the Mossad to obtain abroad test kits to detect the virus and ventilators. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was ordered to track the movements of the sick, and Bennett authorized the mobilization of close to 5,000 IDF reservists to help deal with the continued spread of the deadly virus.
With the number of Israelis diagnosed with the virus continuing to rise, the defense establishment on Sunday asked for a mandate to handle the crisis, a step Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems reluctant to take.
While the government has yet to declare a national state of emergency, under Israeli law the IDF Home Front Command is authorized to assume responsibility for managing the situation alongside civilian authorities.
Last week, the command was ordered to establish quarantine facilities in hotels across the country and provide essential services such as food and medicine to Israel’s elderly, in an operation dubbed “Operation Save Savta.”
Some 1,000 soldiers from the command have also been ordered to assist at-risk populations who are stuck in their homes unable to get essential goods such as food and medicine.
On Wednesday when asked by The Jerusalem Post about the homeless population, a growing at-risk population of all ages, Bennett said that the defense establishment will provide for all at-risk individuals over the age of 65.
On Wednesday, IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman said that while no order has yet been given to the military to enforce a nationwide lockdown, should that step be necessary, eight battalions of troops from training bases will accompany the police.
The army is prepared to double the number of troops to help the police, if necessary. The troops, who are undergoing special training for the possible assignment, will act as an auxiliary force to assist the police, who have the legal authority to enforce the lockdown.
Earlier in the week, acting head of Israel Police Asst.-Ch. Moti Cohen revealed some details of this state-of-emergency full-closure plan, saying that it would involve dividing the country into quadrants, each headed by a captain and teams of police officers and troops, who would monitor borders and movement and enforce quarantine.
Hundreds of police officers would be deployed to villages, towns and cities and stationed alongside IDF soldiers. Every quadrant would be placed under the command of a division, and every city or town would be assigned to brigades with battalions responsible for neighborhoods.
But the soldiers will not be armed. Zilberman said, “It’s not that kind of mission.”
Nevertheless, the image of IDF troops on the street and police blockades to enforce a nationwide lockdown is one citizens of the State of Israel should expect to see in coming days - if they leave their homes.
Troops are already on the streets of Italy and in neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Across the world, in addition to heavy fines for people breaching quarantine orders, they face jail time.
And while the military has yet to be given the order, the IDF has been preparing for the scenario in which the Health Ministry is overrun by patients needing lifesaving treatment, and Netanyahu passes the baton over to the army and the defense establishment to handle the crisis.
The military has also been working in conjunction with Magen David Adom and has established a call center and a national emergency portal; run a blood drive with the goal of obtaining at least 7,000 units of blood; arranged logistical help for the drive-through test centers; set up five quarantine hotels across the country; and more.
The Home Front Command intends to establish a national emergency center to assist the public due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The center will serve as a focal point for managing civilian assistance and help local authorities and the general public in terms of food, medical assistance, mental support, transportation and more.
The national emergency center is expected to open next week, and will be run by troops from the command.
IDF Unit 81, the military intelligence technology unit, is also working with MDA, various hospitals and the Health Ministry on technological aspects, including producing face masks for healthcare providers and 50 vans with internal separators to protect drivers from infected patients, as well as information management software for laboratories testing for coronavirus.
According to Zilberman, the unit is aiming to produce some 1,000 masks per day and 400 masks have already been delivered to medical professionals.
In a bid to support healthcare providers, hundreds of female soldiers will also support medical professionals by caring for and teaching their children in 28 health facilities across the country. The IDF is also helping Magen David Adom to test Israelis for the coronavirus, with 150 crews traveling to homes across the country suspected of carrying the virus.
AS PART of Operation Ray of Light, the military has ordered commanders to enforce the regulations set by the Health Ministry to avoid crowds and make sure that troops keep a distance of 2 meters from others.
But such an order seemed to be ignored during this week’s conscription of combat units. Troops were seen sitting next to one another, much closer than the 2-meter distance ordered by Netanyahu and reinforced by the country’s top military officer.
While close to 6,000 IDF troops are in quarantine, and another 25 diagnosed with the virus, Zilberman told reporters that the military is continuing to press ahead with normal operational capabilities, with several changes made in order to prevent the spread of the virus, such as keeping troops on base for a month to limit contact with potential carriers.
The military also announced that all military tryouts have been postponed until further notice, due to the continued spread of the deadly virus.
On Wednesday Kochavi warned in a letter to commanders that the worst stage of the coronavirus is “still ahead of us,” and that a widespread military operation may also occur as the virus continues to spread.
“There is a serious phase still ahead of us. There will be a deterioration in the scope of the health of patients, the economy and society,” he said in a letter seen by the Post.
He warned that according to the military’s working assumptions, the corona crisis “will last many months,” and that the IDF will have no choice but to increase the scope of assistance it is providing to the state.
“As time goes on, and as the economic, medical, and mental state of the country will grow more difficult, so will the impact on the soldiers, career officers and commanders,” he said.
Nevertheless, the IDF will continue to train and maintain operational readiness, as “an attack, another round of violent confrontation [with the Gaza Strip] and even a widespread operation could also occur during this period,” Kochavi warned.