The IDF is working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among soldiers and officers as panic continues to rattle the country and the world over the disease.
As of Sunday morning 1,040 IDF soldiers have entered quarantine, the majority of whom recently returned from vacations overseas or came into contact with someone who was diagnosed with the virus. Another 237 soldiers have returned to their units after spending two weeks in quarantine.
The military said that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi decided to take a strict approach to reduce the number of soldiers exposed to the virus in order to maintain the IDF’s operational readiness, which is essential to the security of the State of Israel.
Over the weekend, a female soldier, who had been suspected of having the disease and was in quarantine, was found not to have corona. Nevertheless, following consultation with medical personnel at Tel Hashomer Hospital and the Health Ministry, the soldier will undergo another test on Monday.
On Friday, the IDF announced that no IDF soldier would be able to leave Israel in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The decision was made by Kochavi in accordance with the Health Ministry’s guidelines and following a situational assessment with the military’s General Staff.
In addition to preventing all IDF personnel from traveling abroad, all joint military drills – in Israel and abroad for the month of March – have been canceled. A General Staff exercise scheduled for March 15-19 will be postponed to another date.
A committee formed by the military may permit some exceptions to the ban on a case-by-case basis such as specific operational trips abroad or for troops who need to leave the country for pressing medical or family reasons. The Rosh Hanikra and Quneitra border crossings (with Lebanon and Syria) will also be closed.
According to the new guidelines, reservists who have been abroad for the past two weeks will not be called up for reserve duty, and the recruitment of cadets who have been abroad for the past two weeks will be delayed.
Individuals from abroad who arrived from Europe this week to volunteer at IDF bases will return to their countries, and future groups have been instructed not to come to Israel until further notice.
The military also placed restrictions on events, ceremonies, conferences and gatherings. Events in closed areas will be limited to 100 people and outdoors events will be limited to 500 people.
No civilians will be allowed to attend and unnecessary events have been canceled. All units will be briefed on how to spot the symptoms of the virus and a dedicated team to deal with the virus will be established for every platoon and higher.
In addition, the military has called up 100 medical reservists, to help with the call center set up by the IDF to deal with calls from soldiers who are concerned they might have contracted the virus.
The Home Front Command will appoint an officer to assist civilian areas, if responsibility is transferred to the Ministry of Defense.
As of March 5, Israel’s Health Ministry is leading the charge in combating the coronavirus. But as part of a government decision from January 2002, the overall responsibility for dealing with pandemic events with a high death rate rests with the defense minister, who coordinates the matter with the cabinet.
With some 19 confirmed cases of the virus diagnosed in the West Bank, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett mulled imposing a full closure on the West Bank due to the spread of the virus.
"The Coronavirus has been expanding in Israel in recent days and it requires us all to take responsibility for the possibility of pandemic (pandemic)," Bennett said. “In the event of the virus spreading to the plague situation and declaring a national crisis, the security system will take responsibility for managing the event."
Bennett, who attended a Homefront Command drill on the virus led by the head of the Homefront Command Maj.-Gen. Tamir Yadai and instructed him to present a report by Monday on the economic implications of a possible closure of the West Bank.
While the fear of the virus has spread across the globe, the virus has not yet been deemed a pandemic. Bennett nevertheless stressed that the defense system is fully prepared to deal with such a situation should it reach those proportions.
“It is important to say that we are not there yet, and we appreciate and hope not to get there either,” he stressed. "If every citizen in the country follows the Health Ministry's instructions, hand washing, avoiding contact with each other and maintaining public order, we can certainly overcome the crisis. Need to say - the Health Ministry is dealing with the situation very well, and as much as we need we will assist and be prepared for transfer aid.”
On Thursday he ordered the IDF and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) to impose a full closure on the city of Bethlehem in coordination with the Palestinian Authority.
The decision bars Palestinians from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahur from entering Israel. Israelis and tourists will also be barred from entering, and over the weekend, the IDF helped tourists stranded in Bethlehem to leave the country via Ben-Gurion Airport.
According to Reuters, 13 Americans suspected of being exposed to coronavirus currently remain in quarantine near Bethlehem, and are coordinating with US and Palestinian authorities to try to get home.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also announced a 30-day state of emergency the West Bank on Thursday. Israel controls all crossings into and out of the West Bank, but Palestinian security forces are responsible for those inside the cities affected by the virus.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh also announced that all non-essential travel would also be prohibited, and that all schools and educational institutions, as well as public parks and tourist sites, would be closed. Large sporting events and conferences would also be canceled.
On Thursday, COGAT announced that they have been helping the Palestinian health care system in an effort to curb the spread of the virus in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to a statement, 250 coronavirus test kits have been transferred from Israel to the PA, and joint training sessions for both Israeli and Palestinian medical personnel have been organized for the professional study of the virus, the protection of medical personnel and the testing of patients suspected of being virus carriers.
Deputy IDF Chief of Staff, Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir, who is coordinating the IDF's response to the virus along with the Operations Directorate, will present the military's recommendations next week.