How the corona chief of staff has handled the crisis

MILITARY AFFAIRS: It’s a battle Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi never imagined he’d be leading, but the fight against the coronavirus is what fate has tasked him with.

IDF CHIEF OF STAFF Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi  – not the war he imagined he’d be fighting.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
IDF CHIEF OF STAFF Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi – not the war he imagined he’d be fighting.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A military chief of staff – especially in Israel – is always prepared to command his forces against known enemies during war. But no military chief of staff – including Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi – thought that his main task would be guiding one of the world’s most lethal armies in a fight against an unknown virus in the middle of a global pandemic.
Kochavi began his term in January 2019 when Israel’s usual foes – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – were top priority.
He began at a time where the IDF saw the window of opportunity to act against Iranian entrenchment on its northern borders getting smaller and smaller. And five days after he became chief of staff, a ground-to-ground missile was fired from Syria toward Israel’s only ski resort, Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, which was packed with thousands of visitors.
The missile was intercepted by the Iron Dome antimissile system, but the message was clear: Iran was Israel’s top threat and it needed to be stopped.
Throughout his tenure, Israel’s “war between the wars” campaign against Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, has seen action on a weekly basis.
Under Kochavi’s command, the military has dealt with threats not only from the north but also from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and from the West Bank.
The past year saw the most serious peak of violence between Israel and terrorist groups in the strip since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, with dozens of rounds of violence and over a thousand rockets fired. Seven Israel civilians were killed, the highest number of civilian casualties since 2014.
Terrorist attacks in the West Bank have also claimed the lives of Israeli civilians and one IDF soldier, St.-Sgt. Amit Ben Yigal.
All of these threats are, unfortunately, deemed normal, and a military leader is expected to command over them. IDF troops are deployed to Israel’s borders to defend and protect the lives of its civilians, allowing them to continue with their everyday lives.
But a year and one month into his tenure, he was forced to shift the military’s focus away from known enemies entrenched in cities and communities of Israel’s neighbors to an unknown virus that silently crept into the cities and communities of Israel – the coronavirus.
Instead of dealing with another military operation in the blockaded coastal enclave or a dangerous war in the north with Hezbollah, Israel’s military instead began to provide aid to the home front in an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly virus.
But it wasn’t Kochavi who was leading the IDF’s response to the virus.
IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir was given the order to coordinate the military’s response to the virus along with the Operations Directorate led by Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva, the Medical Corps and the Home Front Command, which works closely with civilian emergency response services.
Instead of troops from the IDF’s Givati, Golani or Nahal brigades fighting on the front lines, it was troops from the Home Front Command who were the ones on a war footing, leading the charge.
Of course, like in any battle, troops and reservists from units across the military were called up, and during the first wave of the virus thousands of troops, including from the Paratroopers Brigade, were deployed to cities such as Bnei Brak and Jerusalem to hand out food or help the Israel Police enforce lockdown regulations.
In March the IDF also kept troops on base and suspended all training for reservists until after the end of the Passover holiday on April 15. That decision was likely responsible for keeping the number of confirmed cases of the virus in the military to a minimum. But, like in any battle, IDF troops weren’t immune to the virus, and hundreds came down with coronavirus during that first wave.
Though the IDF had not been given full responsibility to fight the virus, Israel came out of that first wave – which lasted from March until the end of April – claiming victory. The number of confirmed cases was kept under control, and not many lives were lost.
During the height of the first wave, the IDF also recognized a decrease in hostile enemy activity targeting Israel, including in  Gaza, where it’s been the quietest period in years.
But a few months later, the number of confirmed cases started spiking again; the battle wasn’t over.
Despite the fact that Israel’s foes had returned to their usual activity – with rockets launched from Gaza and a tense northern border following threats by Hezbollah to retaliate for the death of one of its operatives in an alleged Israeli airstrike in July – the battle against the virus once again became the top priority.
And in August, months after former defense minister Naftali Bennett first demanded that the reins be handed over to the IDF, the military was given the responsibility to tackle the battle head-on, along with the Health Ministry.
Thousands of troops and reservists were once again called up to take part in the fight, and the command was then given to set up a system to break the chain of infection and to once again help police enforce the lockdown put in place by the government.
Unlike the first wave where troops were welcomed by citizens who, by and large, listened to the regulations, there were mass violations of the rules by citizens, and IDF troops who had been placed at police checkpoints were criticized and even verbally assaulted.
In a rare admission, IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman said it was “not one of our most effective missions” and announced that troops would be pulled from that mission replaced by Border Police officers.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz even called the deployment of troops outside the Knesset a “mistake” that “will not be repeated.”
DESPITE THIS ineffective deployment of troops to help the police, in August, when the military was handed the baton, the Home Front Command formed the Alon Unit, under the command of Brig.-Gen. Nissan Davidi, alongside the Health Ministry, as part of a nationwide project to reduce the number of coronavirus cases in the country.
The unit is made up of four departments – the National Investigations Center; testing; quarantine facilities; and laboratories. Using military technology to centralize data from the Health Ministry and Magen David Adom, the IDF aims to cut the chain of infection.
The military says it can effectively deal with 2,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus per day with the 1,300 investigators it currently has. The center aims to be able to reach 4,000 confirmed cases per day, once it has its target number of 2,000 investigators doing two complete investigations per day.
In addition to the Alon Unit, the army is currently deploying some 5,000 officers and soldiers operating drive-through test centers, helping out assisted-living facilities and liaison units in local and regional governments.
And all that is necessary because, unlike in the first wave, the numbers could not be kept under control; they kept rising.
There are over 48,700 active cases of coronavirus, and the death toll, which stood below 300 at the end of May, is now over 2,000. The number of IDF service members infected also skyrocketed, with 1,192 diagnosed cases.
Hospitals have started turning away coronavirus patients, unable to take in any more. They were overwhelmed.
In order to help the medical system, the IDF opened coronavirus wards at the Rambam Medical Center, turning its underground parking lot into a patients bay staffed by a team of some 100 doctors, paramedics, nurses and medics from the military, who treat patients in satisfactory to serious condition.
“The IDF has never treated Israeli citizens, even during the country’s hardest years,” said IDF Chief Medical Officer Brig.-Gen. Prof. Alon Glazberg. “We give humanitarian aid, including to our neighbors in Syria, but never to Israeli citizens.”
Before it opened on Sunday, the personnel underwent professional and comprehensive training by Rambam staff “at dizzying speeds,” said Glazberg. They come from all over the IDF’s medical corps, with some doctors specializing in certain fields like internal or family medicine, and nurses specializing in emergency medicine.
Speaking to reporters, Rambam Health Care Campus director-general of Dr. Michael Halberthal said the officers are a “force multiplier” which would free up the hospital’s staff for other needs.
Halberthal said the fact that military officers are working shoulder to shoulder with hospital staff is a “big message to Israel,” but it “doesn’t diminish the fact that everyone should be responsible” in combating the virus.
“We cannot forget for one minute that this situation didn’t have to happen. It’s in everyone’s hands to do the most basic... like wearing masks, keeping proper hygiene and social distancing,” he stressed. “We could have prevented this.”
Israel could have prevented the disastrous and deadly second wave, but as the virus continues to attack the country, it is up to the IDF to battle against it, and it has the manpower and the logistical capabilities to win this war.
It may not have been the war that Kochavi imagined he’d be fighting when he first sat down behind his desk on the 14th floor of the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, but no military chief really ever chooses his war.
He is the corona chief of staff.