In this time of uncertainty, Moment is working hard to provide you with fact checked news, resources and analysis—plus some lighter fare—to help us make it through the crisis together. Click here for our ongoing coronavirus coverage.
In its efforts to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, the Israeli government has deployed thousands of Israeli soldiers to work with the police, along with the health and interior ministries, emergency health services Magen David Adom and other civilian authorities.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, head of the International Media Branch at the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Spokesman’s Unit, tells Moment that “the IDF’s priorities are clearly defined. Above all, the IDF must maintain operational continuity to enable the IDF to protect Israel. At the same time, the IDF has the capacity and the responsibility to aid the State of Israel in any of its needs.”
Soldiers, mostly conscripts and officers from the Home Front, have been assigned tasks ranging from transporting patients to disseminating information pamphlets written in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and Amharic.
Soldiers from the IDF’s educational units have been pressed into service as babysitters for the children of civilian medical personnel, who are working round-the-clock at Israeli hospitals and clinics. Lt. Col. Ya’arit Gozlan, quoted on a public military website, explains:”We have designed a pedagogical program for this objective, we have prepared means for distance teaching according to the education ministry, as appropriate for each age group…These soldiers breathe education, and this is a wonderful way to fulfill the values of national service.”
Conscripts and some reservists from Israeli’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, and the high-level technological Unit 81, have also been engaged to help find solutions to some of the tremendous medical challenges posed by COVID-19, including the creation of information-management software for the Coronavirus Testing Lab, to manage COVID-19 tests efficiently, and mass-data analysis systems, the IDF’s Conricus says.
In addition, soldiers from elite combat reconnaissance units have been deployed to the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, which the government has declared a “restricted zone.” This step was taken after unsuccessful efforts to make its residents comply with the nationwide shelter-at-home and social distancing regulations, which have caused the city, one of the most densely populated in Israel, to become a major hot spot for COVID-19.
Conricus emphasizes that the IDF is “not in charge of these missions and in no way is it the sovereign authority in the cities to which it has been deployed…The army is there to aid the local authorities and the police.” Most of these soldiers were in the final stages of their combat training, he says, so they are not sacrificing their operational combat capabilities.
The soldiers are fulfilling such assignments as helping to cordon-off areas,and distributing food packages to families and individuals in quarantine.
“It is really weird to be in Bnei Brak,” says Itay (not his real name), 19, in a WhatsApp video conversation. Itay is not his real name. Because he is speaking with Moment without permission from the IDF spokesperson, he cannot be identified .
Like the other soldiers, he is wearing army fatigues, with the Magen David symbol of the state in his epaulets and a fluorescent vest on top. “We got here very early in the morning, and the streets were almost completely empty. I helped some policemen set up a road block, then I watched them break up a minyan, and the men did try to resist a bit, but I’m not allowed to get involved and anyway, it didn’t get out of hand.”
“I come from the north, my family is secular, and I’ve never been to Bnei Brak. It’s a different world. Some of the people I’ve brought food to don’t have smartphones or internet, so they aren’t even really aware of what’s going on. They just say that they do what the rabbis tell them to do, so we gave them reliable information.”
Itay acknowledges that initially, he was not pleased about being sent to Bnei Brak with his unit. “We’re combat soldiers. We’ve trained for over a year—but not for this! But a command is a command, so we have no choice.
Referring to the fact that most ultra-Orthodox men do not enlist in the IDF, Itay says, “Here I am, doing my compulsory army service, sent to help people who don’t even do any service. I see kids my age, with long payot [sidecurls] and they are doing whatever they want. But I’m also helping older people, and a lot of them are really thankful. And yesterday, some came out with food and drinks for us—we didn’t talk much, because we have to maintain a six-foot distance, but it was a really nice gesture.”
The mission in Bnei Brak, says Conricus, is “very complicated and sensitive. It requires emotional and mental preparation, along with flexibility and emotional maturity. On the one hand, the soldiers have to approach this mission as they would any other—to fulfil the objectives to the best of their abilities. On the other hand, they must understand that they are being sent to a civilian area within the State of Israel, and that they are not fighting terror or guerrillas.
“We did not have much time to prepare, since this is an emergency situation, but we have done our best to provide them with cultural training about the particular needs of the ultra-Orthodox community, how to avoid conflicts, and what is culturally inappropriate,” he says.
Some of the residents of Bnei Brak speak Yiddish as their first language. “They gave us handouts with translations of some phrases into Yiddish,” says Itay. “I tried to say things in Yiddish, out of respect. But how am I supposed to figure these things out? All of my grandparents came from Morocco.”
“It makes me so proud that our soldiers can do this,” says Irit, Itay’s mother. “They are combat soldiers and also have the compassion to do this kind of work.”
Reactions such as this, says Colonel (Res.), Adv. Liron A. Libman, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and the IDF’s former chief military prosecutor and head of international law department, are “quite understandable. Most Israelis do not see these young men as soldiers in the usual sense of the word. They are our children, our father, nephews and grandchildren.”
Libman says that it is understandable why the government would want the army to be involved, especially as criticism of the government’s management of this crisis is growing. “Our research shows that the military enjoys the highest level of public trust of any Israeli institution,” he explains.
The deployment of the combat and intelligence units shows that the army is better equipped to handle crisis situations. “The IDF knows how to deal with a crisis. In routine times, that’s what the army is primarily responsible for doing: preparing for the crisis of war is its only responsibility.”
This is not the first time that the military were deployed to civilian activities, Libman notes. “Ever since the founding of the State, the IDF has been involved in the absorption of immigrants, teaching Hebrew to underprivileged youth, and so forth. In the First Gulf War and in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, recruits were enlisted into civilian roles. This does raise questions about using conscripts, who have no choice and enlisted into the military. In the 1990s, the state dealt with this and defined the role of the army to be the ‘defense of the country and fulfillment of its defensive needs.'”
Does combat or intelligence training qualify these young conscripts for sensitive civilian assignments? “Good soldiers are not necessarily good citizens. But the threshold of skills, including intellectual interpersonal skills, for the elite units is very high, and so the soldiers are assumed to be able to deal with ambiguous and complex situations, which is what they are required to do in this case.
“This is an indication of the high level of human capital in the IDF. One could also reason that, because Israel is a small country, we can’t build many different systems, and we have to take advantage of the high level of personnel that the army maintains.”
Some worry that thecredit accorded the army can lead to a distortion of priorities. Noting that the military has funds and equipment, including medical equipment, that civilian systems, such as the health system, lack, Haaretz columnist Raviv Drucker asks rhetorically, “Is this an army with a PR firm, or a PR firm with an army?”
“Of course the army is taking advantage of the public relations,” says Libman. “That is the job of the army’s spokespeople. The army will need this good will in the future, when it wants to increase its budgets. But at the same time, if I were in the army right now, I would be very concerned. Despite the tremendous human capital, the army does not specialize in everything, and the potential for problems that could tarnish its image is also very great.”
Itay is not concerned about any of these issues. “I am representing the State of Israel and the army. I am proud of what we are doing. This virus is an enemy, too, and we are helping to defeat it.”