For IDF who are fighting deadly coronavirus: An unforgettable Passover

With soldiers enforcing a shutdown on cities and bare-bones Seders held around the country, Israel adjusts to its first quarantined holiday

In the wake of the coronavirus, COGAT officers and soldiers deliver essentials to the needy and disabled in Jerusalem for Passover (photo credit: COGAT SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
In the wake of the coronavirus, COGAT officers and soldiers deliver essentials to the needy and disabled in Jerusalem for Passover
(photo credit: COGAT SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
For the soldiers taking part in the fight against the deadly coronavirus, it was a Passover they will never forget. Instead of their usual military maneuvers and tasks, they were deployed in Israel’s cities, providing food to at-risk populations, such as the elderly and disabled, and helping with the evacuation of sick individuals stricken with the virus. 

It was also a Passover holiday and Seder night that Israel will never forget.

Instead of cars sitting in hours of traffic on all major highways, the highways were quiet, blocked by police and IDF troops enforcing the country’s strict regulations against the coronavirus and preventing families from spending the holiday night with other family members.

The country was on lockdown. No commuters were allowed to travel between cities, no one was allowed to wander more than 100 meters from their homes.

While the entry and exit into the mostly haredi city of Bnei Brak has been closed off by some 70 roadblocks since Friday, in an attempt to curb the continued spread of the highly infectious and deadly virus, the entire country was ordered to stay at home and celebrate the holiday only with the immediate family.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who for weeks has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to transfer the responsibility of managing the crisis immediately to his office, said Saturday that Israel is at “war” with the coronavirus.

“If we want to cope with this [pandemic], if we want to reopen the Israeli economy, then all responsibility for managing the coronavirus crisis – from A to Z – must be transferred to the IDF and the Defense Ministry as quickly as possible,” Bennett told Channel 12 News. “We are at war. We are fighting a tough biological war, against nature, and it’s a war with colossal logistical issues.”

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi has also spoken out against the delay of transferring the responsibility of the crisis to the defense establishment, writing a letter to Netanyahu with eight issues that the military should immediately assume responsibility for. Chief among them is coronavirus testing.

Early on in the crisis, the defense minister called on the government to carry out thousands of coronavirus tests, urging the Health Ministry to carry out over 30,000 per day. While the Health Ministry has now been ordered to carry out such a number, only 8,000 tests are currently being done daily.

Even with several drive-in test centers established across the country, including in Bnei Brak and the southern Bedouin town of Rahat, the Health Ministry has still not been able to get anywhere close to the number of tests needed to get the virus under control.

In his letter, parts of it published by Israel Hayom, Kochavi noted that the military has a “distinct advantage” over civilian authorities when it comes to crisis management.

According to the report, which quoted defense officials who were privy to the letter, Kochavi’s letter “expresses the disapproval among the General Staff with the way the coronavirus crisis is being handled.”

Kochavi, like many high-ranking officials involved in the crisis, was trying to sound the alarm. His letter stressed to Netanyahu that the IDF, which has fought countless wars, is willing and ready to step up to the plate.

Though the government has yet to declare a national state of emergency, under Israeli law the IDF’s Home Front Command is authorized to assume responsibility for managing the situation alongside civilian authorities. Although the Health Ministry is still running the show, the Home Front Command has been front and center in the fight against corona from the beginning.
AS PART of the IDF’s effort to curb the spread of the virus in the ultra-Orthodox sector, former OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Roni Numa is overseeing the operations in Bnei Brak, Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Gal Hirsch in Elad, and Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yossi Bachar is doing the same in Betar Illit.

“We are currently trying to build a system that can give us a much more accurate picture of what is being done in the city medically, logistically and in welfare,” Numa told Israel Hayom.
Over 15,000 troops have also been called up to handle the crisis as part of Operation Laser Beam, and more will likely join them as the crisis deepens.

While the troops mainly come from the Home Front Command and the Technological and Logistics Directorate, some 1,400 soldiers from training bases have been assigned to accompany police enforcing roadblocks across the country.
On Sunday morning, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the Defense Ministry will provide aid to 450 nursing homes due to the growing number of outbreaks in assisted living facilities across the country, where over 11 elderly Israelis have died and additional patients are in serious condition.
Some 18,000 soldiers are teaching staff how to better protect residents and themselves with protective gear. The troops will also screen people for fevers, before they enter the facilities, and disinfect any areas where an infected person has been.
Troops of the Home Front Command, assisted by soldiers from the Paratroop Brigade, have also taken responsibility for the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and have begun assisting local authorities.
There were dozens of roadblocks up when The Jerusalem Post visited Bnei Brak on Sunday, and the streets of the usually bustling city of 210,000 residents were quiet. There were lines for supermarkets and pharmacies, and while not everyone kept the required 2-meter distance, there was not one person without a face mask.
IDF troops from the Home Front Command and 98th Division were also seen on the street, carrying parcels of food into residential buildings.
“As combat soldiers, we have been taught that wherever Israeli citizens are in need, our job is to help, to help and save as many lives as possible,” said Brig.-Gen. Yaron Finkelman, the commander of the 98th Paratroop Division. “The mission of helping the city of Bnei Brak is for me a symbol of mutual responsibility and social solidarity, which has always characterized the IDF and the State of Israel"
Nevertheless, the deployment of the IDF in an ultra-Orthodox city was a dramatic move, as the ultra-Orthodox population is perceived as largely frowning upon the military.
There were concerns that there could be clashes between the unarmed troops and residents, but all the officers whom the Post asked said that the residents have started adhering to the regulations and have even begun calling authorities when they see others going against them. Army Radio reported that IDF troops were also given a Yiddish dictionary in order to communicate with residents.
According to a senior IDF officer taking part in the military’s operations in the city, troops have yet to encounter a single instance of opposition to them.
“The opposite is true,” he said.
Commander Shlomi Sagi, operational commander for the Israel Police in the Tel Aviv District, told the Post that police have been working around the clock in the city, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
Bnei Brak is a complicated city with a population that does not use the Internet or watch television. The public requires explanations tailored to its communities, which are disciplined and follow the orders given by their rabbis.
“From the moment that Rabbi [Chaim] Kanievsky made his statements, there’s been a rise in calls to the police by people who are calling in on people going against regulations,” Sagi said, referring to a senior religious leader in the community.
“Bnei Brak is full of different sects, and within those sects are other groups. There are one or two main groups who give us problems, but the majority of residents are adhering to the regulations,” he said.
In addition to the roadblocks around the city, officers are “very aggressive” in giving tickets to those who continue to flout the regulations.
“If they leave their homes, it’s to get food and to go to the pharmacy, but when we see people doing otherwise, we give them fines,” Sagi said.
Troops will be given responsibility over streets, buildings and even families to care for, providing them with all they need, from food to medical supplies.
The soldiers from the Paratroop Brigade, who will not enforce the lockdown on the city, are providing food to at-risk populations, such as the elderly and the disabled, and also helping with the evacuation of the sick.
It’s quite different from their usual combat missions deep behind enemy lines, “but officers and troops are very motivated,” a senior officer told the Post, adding that troops will continue to operate in the city as long as necessary.
Ma nishtana halayla hazeh – so much changed this Seder night.