Israeli police wearing masks patrol as they enforce a national lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, April 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.
As Israel gradually lifts the restrictions it imposed to protect public health amid the coronavirus pandemic, concerns remain over the threat of a second wave of infections. If one does materialize, Israel will likely be in a better place to counter it — in no small part thanks to the exertions of its security establishment, whose unique strengths were vital to the country’s fight against the microscopic enemy.
The Defense Ministry became the country’s main logistical arm as the crisis unfolded, leveraging its strong overseas procurement capabilities and its extensive experience handling sensitive shipments arriving by air or sea. The Mossad intelligence agency joined the fray as well, mainly to obtain critically-needed and highly-sought medical equipment from abroad. These efforts helped prevent shortages that might have otherwise crippled the nation’s response to the pandemic.
Within hard-hit municipalities, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s Home Front Command delivered food to at-risk populations, aided the evacuation of the ill to hospitals, and worked with communal groups to care for affected families. The exceptional encounters between these uniformed soldiers and members of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israeli communities, two demographic groups that largely forgo military service, reflected the widespread feeling of solidarity within Israel.
The Home Front Command also assumed responsibility for treating individuals arriving from abroad and managing hotels for those who required isolation. The Command’s commendable and tireless activities fell within its central mission — supporting the civilian sector during a crisis.
The IDF likewise facilitated the delivery of wide-ranging assistance to the Palestinians, including testing kits, protective gear, and other medical and humanitarian supplies, in order to mitigate the pandemic’s spread in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and Palestinian Authority territories in the West Bank. These efforts seem to have born fruits, considering the low fatality rate among Palestinians to date.
But the military escalated its involvement even further. The Defense Ministry and the IDF’s advanced technology networks quickly developed systems that allowed hospitals to ventilate more patients, and to establish dedicated coronavirus wards where patients could be treated, monitored, and communicated with — all while isolated.
One of the IDF’s special units helped organize testing to identify coronavirus carriers and determine who needed to be isolated due to contact with the patients. It created a process to significantly shorten and ultimately “cut” the chain of contagion, so that the number of individuals infected by each carrier would be greatly reduced.
The IDF’s Intelligence Corps and C4i Directorate built on existing technologies typically used for military needs to establish a command and control system that conveys critical information, including the number of patients, their status and location, and lab performance. This system offers the Health Ministry a precise measure of the coronavirus threat, and control over relevant testing and monitoring tools.
Researchers at the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate took charge of investigating the disease, as well as summarizing research and findings from overseas that could provide valuable lessons. The Research Department produced daily reports on the state of the infection in Israel, and studies of efforts abroad that could aid decision makers — for instance, how other countries managed the easing of restrictions, protecting retirement homes, and the like.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, also played a role, deploying phone tracking technology typically used for counter-terrorism to retrace the movements of coronavirus patients and identify anyone they may have infected. Since this posed a significant breach of privacy, the Shin Bet needed special permission from the Knesset for the operation, which was approved as part of emergency regulations to handle the crisis.
The new capabilities now available to the Health Ministry mark a leap forward from the previous status quo, and the military will likely continue improving them, even though the difficult first wave has already receded in Israel. At the end of the process, the Israeli medical system will be in much better shape on these fronts relative to the eve of the outbreak.
The coronavirus pandemic again highlighted the uniqueness of Israel’s security establishment, which met its newest challenge with creativity and vigor, exceeding all expectations. At the same time, the IDF was able to maintain a high level of operational readiness and, according to foreign reports, it even struck targets in Syria several times. The lessons learned during these recent weeks are likely to shape Israel’s response to future crises, with the security establishment remaining a cornerstone in its defense against national threats — military, health, or otherwise.
IDF MG (ret.) Yaakov Amidror is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy. Amidror was formerly the National Security Advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as the head of Israel’s National Security Council from 2011-13. He is also the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS).