Ex-IDF official: Facing mass Palestinian protest may spread coronavirus

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, who was a top intelligence and military diplomacy official, warned that in the coronavirus era, even a “win” in enforcing the law, could be a long-term "loss."

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister during an anti-Israel protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence in the southern Gaza Strip October 25, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister during an anti-Israel protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence in the southern Gaza Strip October 25, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
Israel could face unique and increased coronavirus dangers if it decides to annex parts of the West Bank and confronts mass Palestinian protests as a result, a former IDF senior officer said Thursday.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Assaf Orion was a top intelligence and military diplomacy officer and is now an Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) fellow. He was part of an INSS-simulated security cabinet that met to address the coronavirus crisis.
Coming only days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz signed a coalition deal that included the potential for a significant annexation move, Orion addressed a less-discussed practical downside.
Whenever even partial West Bank annexation was discussed two months ago or any time before that, objections to the move usually included: fairness to the Palestinians, concerns of diplomatic or legal fallout (especially before the International Criminal Court) and a potential spike in terrorist attacks.
But all of that was before the coronavirus outbreak.
Orion warned that in the coronavirus era, even a win enforcing the law by controlling a protest could spread the virus and lead to a long-term loss.
Today, even a spike in terrorist attacks may not be nearly as dangerous as mass Palestinian protests forcing mass numbers of soldiers to come into physical contact with demonstrators, he said.
A worst-case scenario could mean protesters who know they are infected using themselves as portable bio-weapons to infect security forces, and a second wave of infections could be caused unintentionally by asymptomatic protesters, he added.
Palestinian and regional reaction to annexation would be far more violent and damaging than the brief uptick in violence after the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Orion said.
Retired IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, who is an INSS fellow, also participated in the simulation and discussed the need of viewing each security threat through the lens of additional difficulties, which the coronavirus era might bring.
The defense establishment must be ready for terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza, Iran’s nuclear program and its attempts to move precision missiles to Syria and Lebanon as if there is no coronavirus to slow them down, he said.
The IDF should continue a policy of responding cautiously to mild attacks from Gaza and to focus retaliation more on Islamic Jihad than Hamas, presuming that intelligence showed Hamas was staying out of the hostilities, Eisenkot said.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Mossad must learn lessons during this period about how to operate better in the corona and post-corona environment, he said.
Pnina Sharvit-Baruch, a former head of the IDF’s International Law Division, said the High Court of Justice has generally endorsed the government’s new aggressive policies to fight coronavirus even if they would be viewed as invading privacy in normal times.
The High Court understood the high stakes, she said, adding that the special measures were necessary, as long as there was tight oversight and transparency.
Much of the rest of the simulation revolved around debates between health, educational and finance experts about how to balance opening the country’s economy and educational institutions with the increased risks of infection such moves would present.