IDF intelligence’s constant eye on coronavirus and Iran

While the enemy may be different, “this is very similar to our usual work.”

Maj. A, who usually researches Iran’s nuclear project, stands outside the National Coronavirus Information Center. (photo credit: IDF)
Maj. A, who usually researches Iran’s nuclear project, stands outside the National Coronavirus Information Center.
(photo credit: IDF)
Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate has spent the past six weeks researching an enemy different from the usual suspects, one which has so far claimed some 200 lives: the novel coronavirus.
When the virus took hold in Israel in early March, officers and troops from the Military Intelligence Directorate’s Research Division switched gears from enemies such as Iran and Hezbollah and opened a national coronavirus information center at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, to work with the Health Ministry in order to help stop the spread of the virus.
In March, Captain D, who usually researches Syria’s nuclear program, was approached by her commander. She had a new role – she was to research coronavirus tests and which could be the best one to import in order to use on Israeli citizens.
Cpt. D, whose name cannot be shared for security purposes, was one of four officers working at Israel’s National Coronavirus Information Center who spoke with The Jerusalem Post about their work against their latest enemy.
Using the military’s capabilities to gather intelligence, they amass all available information on the virus from across the globe – such as official government statistics, academic research, social media and fake news, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning – to help the government, Health Ministry and IDF Home Front Command make critical decisions.
While the enemy may be different, “this is very similar to our usual work,” said Col. N., commander of Military Intelligence’s Technology Department, which specializes in analyzing enemy technology and weaponry.
“We understood a month-and-a-half ago that there is a gap in the information we have on the virus,” said Col. N, whose name cannot be shared for security purposes.
According to the colonel, Cpt. D is one of 300 officers and troops from the Research Division – “who used to do something completely different” – who have been working around the clock to gather all available data on the disease.
“The center has researchers from all aspects of Military Intelligence,” said Maj. A, who used to focus on Iran’s nuclear project. “We are academics who know how to do data-driven research.”
Col. N told the Post that they sat with officials from the Health Ministry in early March and asked what they needed in the fight against the coronavirus. “They told us they needed up-to-date and relevant information on the virus,” he said, adding that “it was clear to us, that just like in any war, we need to help.”
Since then, “We have been focused on a new enemy: the coronavirus.”
“We look at all the research from all over the world, the most up-to-date research,” said Maj. A, adding that troops are “also looking at various policies implemented by various governments and how they are dealing with the crisis; which countries are reopening and which aren’t; the impact of the at-risk populations like refugees and foreign workers and more.”
Col. N told the Post that it was “luck” that the first outbreak in Israel came after the first waves in Asia and Europe, as they were able to see what policies were working in various countries in those regions and what were not.
“We aren’t looking at the future but in the past. If we see that the numbers are stable now, then it means that what we did two or three weeks ago worked,” he said. “We see now that the Passover holiday was a success.”
There are between 15-20 officers in charge of more than a dozen soldiers who focus on specific questions, speak with sources around the world and look at the statistics of the virus. Within a day or two, they need to have the answer they are looking for.
“We don’t have the time,” Col. N said. “We want to be relevant and in time.”
One such question, Maj. A said, was where there were clusters of the virus in Israel and what to do with travelers returning from abroad.
From the research compiled, virus hotspots such as synagogues were discovered, which led to the decision to close them, as well as the decision to have all who enter the country enter specific quarantine facilities, rather than home quarantine.
“When we began we started ‘heatmaps’ to show which cities had the largest clusters” Maj. A said, explaining that as time went on, with all the information added to the database, troops were able to see which neighborhoods had clusters and which were seeing a decline in cases.
While the majority of the troops don’t have any medical knowledge, including the four officers who spoke to the Post, they are working closely with Health Ministry doctors and researchers.
“We approached the Health Ministry to help but we know where we have gaps and that’s where they come in and help us,” Maj. D said.
According to Cpt. D, troops are boosted with dozens of volunteers, including former troops in Military Intelligence, along with PhD students and more.
“There’s not one person we contacted who didn’t want to help. It’s very heartwarming,” she said.
Like Cpt. D, Second Lieutenant D went from researching one of the top threats to Israel to studying the various coronavirus tests available across the world.
“I went from researching Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force to researching and learning something completely different,” he said. “That alone is a challenging event because there was a lot that I didn’t know.”
While he has since returned to researching the Quds Force, he, like Cpt. A, focused his coronavirus research on the question of coronavirus tests and which would be most relevant to Israel.
Their research and the recommendations gathered from the data was passed on to relevant decision-makers and led to Israel procuring tens of thousands of tests from China and South Korea.
Like in many countries around the world, Israel continues to have problems with the quantity and quality of tests. On April 22, some 10,000 tests procured from China were found to be of low quality and faulty.
“At the end it’s up to me to make sure that it’s the best, but the coronavirus is an event that has so much uncertainty surrounding it. It’s not the best thing to happen, but it’s part of the process and we are continuing to learn as we go. It’s a very complicated event,” Capt. D said.
WHILE MANY countries across the globe, including Israel, are thinking of the post-coronavirus era and have slowly reopened their economies, the virus will continue to have a significant impact on the world.
Though the first wave has passed, authorities are now dealing with the questions about the day after and the economic crisis that will follow, which will cause the world as we have known it to drastically change.
From Brexit, to the great power competition between the US and China to major technological developments, the two years prior to the outbreak of the virus saw significant changes and upheaval, not only in the Middle East but across the globe.
During the height of the crisis, the IDF recognized a decrease in hostile enemy activity targeting Israel.
Second Lieutenant Y, who researched how the coronavirus has impacted the Palestinians and how they are handling the crisis, told the Post that the virus has had “a big impact on the world, including our enemies.”
While it’s been the quietest of periods with the Gaza Strip, “the Palestinian arena is a main issue for us because of its immediate impact,” 2nd Lt. Y said.
With a total of 335 confirmed cases of the virus in the Palestinian territory, including 17 in the Gaza Strip at time of writing, there is an overall feeling that both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have been able to control the virus.
Hamas officials have warned of a “catastrophe” if the virus spreads among the two million people living there and called for international pressure on Israel to ease restrictions and facilitate the delivery of testing gear and other medical equipment.
In an attempt to curb the spread of the deadly virus, Israel has been working with the PA in the West Bank and has transferred numerous pieces of coronavirus equipment into the West Bank and the blockaded coastal enclave.
That aid has led officials to believe that there will be a decrease in attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. But, should the economic crisis deepen and the humanitarian situation worsens, that could change.
TURNING TO Israel’s northern foes, speaking to reporters by phone in early March, IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman said the spread of the virus has affected Israel’s enemies, who have decreased their hostile activities to focus on containing it.
While he did not refer to Iran by name, he said, “There are enemy countries that have been hit much more strongly than us by the coronavirus, and therefore their activities have decreased.”
With thousands of protesters having taken to the streets in Iran several times over the past year – initially caused by an increase in fuel prices followed by the downing of the Ukrainian airliner – Tehran has been under significant internal pressure. The regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has had a hard time keeping everything under control.
The virus took a hard toll on the Islamic Republic, killing thousands of people, including high-ranking regime and military officials. And while Tehran has reported some 5,481 fatalities at time of writing, Israeli officials believe the numbers are significantly higher.
“There [has] been widespread infection and they are lying about it. The numbers the Iranians are reporting about are not true. The numbers of infected and dead I know about are much higher,” Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen was quoted by Axios as saying.
Despite the additional pressure felt by Iran because of the coronavirus crisis, there has been no change in priorities for the regime because of the virus, only a momentary pause.
But that momentary pause did not stop Iran’s proxies from continuing to threaten the Jewish state.
In late March, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel’s “war-between-wars” campaign against Iran is continuing despite the spread of the deadly virus.
Earlier that same day, Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin said that the IAF will continue its routine and maintain operational readiness despite the outbreak of the virus.
At the beginning of April, the IDF accused the Syrian army of helping Hezbollah, publishing video footage from the border showing a senior Syrian Arab Army officer along with a number of other military officers and the head of Hezbollah’s southern command walking along the border.
“Even during the coronavirus period, the new commander of the Syrian army’s 1st Division, Lua’a Ali Ahmad Asa’ad, continues to help and allow the Hezbollah terror group to establish a front on the Golan Heights,” the IDF said in a statement. “In the clip, the new division commander is seen on a patrol of the front, including passing through areas known to be used by Hezbollah, with the head of Hezbollah’s southern command, Hajj Hashem.”
Iran has been one of the Syrian regime’s main allies in the war that has ravaged Syria since 2011, sending thousands of militia fighters and equipment to the war-torn country. Israel’s military said that the Syrian government would be held responsible for all enemy activities emanating from its territory.
“Consider this a warning,” the IDF said in a tacit threat.
Two weeks later a drone strike blamed on Israel struck a vehicle on Lebanon’s border with Syria, destroying it.
The reports of what the strike targeted differs. Some say it was Mustafa Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh – who was assassinated in an alleged Israeli-American operation some 10 years ago. Others say the target was weapons or components designed to upgrade Hezbollah’s missile arsenal.
Though Iran is trying to return to “normal” and has begun to reopen its economy, public mistrust toward the government’s handling of the crisis has only kept growing and it’s likely to cause mass protests once the second wave of the virus hits and kills even more.
But it is not only Iran that will see an outpouring of frustrated angry citizens onto the streets once the fear of the virus subsides.
The coronavirus comes on the heels of the decade of the Arab Spring, which led to political and economic instability as well as more than 10 million refugees fleeing war finding themselves living in poor conditions in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Increased attacks by global terror groups have also increased, with attacks by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban across the Middle East and Africa.
Governments and international institutions have begun to raise concerns regarding the growing constraints on access to food around the world. While there are enough staples in global stocks, the economic damage caused by the virus – with millions unable to work and earn money – has caused the pressure to mount, especially in the Middle East.
The collapse in oil prices in the past two months – the lowest level in over a century – has also been a cause of major concern for Arab countries already struggling with the virus.
Lebanese citizens, who prior to the pandemic had been in the streets nightly protesting its economic downturn, have already started to return to the streets.
Iraq, which needed international support before the crisis, as well as Turkey, which has over 102,000 cases and over 2,491 fatalities, will likely also see citizens protest over their governments’ handling of the pandemic.
The civilians of the Middle East understand how complicated the coronavirus crisis is and that the international community is struggling with the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.
With the world turning inwards, Middle Easterners see that they are alone.
Although the long-term consequences of the virus may take time to manifest themselves, the pandemic has turned the world upside down.
With millions of confirmed cases and hundreds of thousands of fatalities across the globe, it is clear that the day after the pandemic will be more challenging than the novel coronavirus itself.