Fearing Friction With Civilians, Israel Delays Deploying Troops to Enforce Coronavirus Lockdown

One worry is that residents of ultra-Orthodox areas will not look favorably upon such a clampdown

An Israeli soldier and armored vehicle block a road, February 24, 2020.
Ilan Assayag

The government has delayed plans to have soldiers help enforce a full coronavirus lockdown, fearing friction between young soldiers and civilians, military sources said.

It is not yet clear if Israel will opt for a full lockdown; currently, most Israelis are restricted to a 100-meter radius from their homes, but enforcement has been mild.

In any case, unlike other coronavirus missions, the army is very unenthusiastic about this one, the sources said.

Magen David Adom workers at Nofim Nursing Home in Jerusalem, March 2020.
Emil Salman

The army is trying to keep its combat soldiers in their units to prevent mass infections from contact with the outside world. Of course,  many soldiers might already be infected and are simply asymptomatic, but if not, they could become infected enforcing a lockdown.

The original plan called for armed soldiers to accompany the police in their patrol vehicles. But on Sunday, the General Staff grasped the potential for problems; for example, a soldier shooting into the air to disperse civilians in heavily ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, which has seen an outsized number of coronavirus cases.

The army also considered other options like only arming officers on coronavirus patrols. On Sunday night, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit demanded that the entire effort be approved by the cabinet.

Defense officials are getting more and more involved in the coronavirus crisis. A joint war room set up by the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Defense Ministry is handling many issues, from globe-spanning efforts to buy medical equipment and test kits to efforts to improve the Health Ministry’s data collection and computer systems.

Monday, incidentally, is March 30, Land Day, which marks the loss of Arab lands in the Galilee. Two years ago, Israeli army snipers killed dozens of Palestinians in violent clashes along the Gaza border. And until a month ago, the military was making massive preparations for this year’s Land Day. 

But now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a secondary problem compared to the spread of the coronavirus. A little over a year ago Israel was still considering going to war in the Gaza Strip over incendiary balloons.

For now, the Gaza problem has merely shifted shape. Today the worrying scenario is the coronavirus spreading through Gaza, overwhelming its poorly funded hospitals and creating a humanitarian catastrophe that sooner or later would also affect Israel.