(April 13, 2020 / Israel Hayom) Israel Defense Forces’ Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, the military’s point man with respect to managing the pandemic, is something of a lonely man these days. Given the restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus crisis, he hasn’t seen IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi for more than a week, and all of his interactions with the other officers comprising the IDF General Staff are done via phone or video conference.
In a recent interview with Israel Hayom, Zamir says the military first realized back in March that it had a situation on its hands with respect to the virus.
“We understood we were dealing with something more than a simple virus around Purim [in early March] when infection numbers started to spike, and we all learned a new concept—exponential expansion. This was a bona fide outbreak and it was clear to us that we had to prepare differently,” he said. “From that moment on, we took action that in many ways was a step ahead of the state in terms of the decision-making process.”
The military, said Zamir, first prioritized its missions, starting with defending Israel’s borders, protecting its own ranks from the virus and assisting the state wherever required.
“Once we had a plan of action we began delving further into civilian assistance,” he said, emphasizing that “we keep monitoring our borders and beyond and maintain operational readiness for any development.”
Under Israeli law, if the government declares a national state of emergency, the IDF Home Front Command is authorized to assume responsibility for crisis management in civilian authorities. The military’s mandate over localities elapses immediately when the state of emergency is lifted.
So far, the military has been asked to assist police in enforcing a Health Ministry-ordered quarantine on several ultra-Orthodox communities, as the sector’s flouting of the ministry’s social distancing directives has resulted in a significant infection rate.
Bnei Brak in central Israel has been hit particularly hard. Ministry officials believe as many as 75,000 of the city’s 200,000 residents may be infected; nearly half of all Israelis diagnosed with the virus—a number currently edging toward 11,300—are ultra-Orthodox.
Q: Do you see the military taking full charge of the coronavirus crisis?
A: This matter is constantly under discussion. I think that a situation where we assist civilian authorities in managing the issue is appropriate, but we are assuming additional responsibility. As the outbreak develops from one that can be contained to one that cannot be contained, it stands to reason we will be given additional authorities, as is the case in other countries.
Q: Wouldn’t it be best to do this now, to avoid a situation where the outbreak spirals out of control?
A: Even now there is a dependency on the military’s abilities, and this will grow as the outbreak worsens. We are ready for any scenario, but I will leave the decision-making to the political echelon. The military is an organization geared toward taking the initiative and engaging any threat; it’s in its DNA. So the IDF cannot sit on the sidelines when Israel is dealing with an unprecedented event. The powers that be know that we are ready for any mission and we will be able to exercise any authority vested in us, as is the case in Bnei Brak, for example.
[However,] it’s very important that where we take the lead we do not relieve civilian authorities of their responsibilities. That’s a great concern to me—it’s not healthy for a state to have its civilian authorities get used to a situation where, if the military steps in, they are exempt from responsibility. The [civilian] systems—health care, treasury, welfare, the municipalities—have to remain on course. It’s our job to assist them where they struggle.
Q: Support, not replace.
A: I think it would be wrong to replace them. These are elected mayors, there are municipal systems in place, and we have units set to assist them. The mechanism in place was set for wartime so it should be operational now, as well. The correct order of things is that the municipality takes the lead and we harness the considerable capabilities of the Home Front Command to assist, mainly with command and control, logistics, personnel, intelligence and the ability to execute plans.
Q: One of the most pressing issues the IDF seeks to take over is coronavirus testing.
A: That’s a very complex issue. Our special operations unit is working on it and I believe that, given control of the issue, we will be able to get testing up to 30,000, which is the objective set by the prime minister. We have a clear advantage in these fields and we want to use it.
Q: Some would argue that, if the civilian systems fail to handle a pandemic, they won’t be able to handle a real war, missiles hitting urban areas.
A: This [the coronavirus pandemic] was an unpredictable event. We see other countries—Western, advanced countries—where the healthcare system has collapsed. I have nothing but appreciation for our healthcare system and overall, the right decisions were made and the way the systems have been operating is perfectly acceptable.
Q: There’s something unnatural about seeing commandos walking around in the civilian population and performing humanitarian missions.
A: We don’t choose our missions, reality does. A good soldier, a top unit, constantly seeks to engage, and what we’re hearing from the officers on the ground is “put us to use.” These may not be the missions we train for, but the IDF doesn’t always perform the missions it trains for, rather the missions where it is needed.
Q: All eyes are currently on Bnei Brak. The situation there is dire and there is a real concern of a humanitarian crisis. Still, this is not a typical mission for the military.
A: The situation in Bnei Brak is very grim, and a humanitarian disaster [there] is a real concern and we seek to prevent it. Even now, the virus is running rampant there, which is why it was decided to pull the sick out [the government decided to move infected residents who are not hospitalized to a nearby hotel for care and monitoring–Y.L.] There is extraordinary cooperation between all the factors involved and everyone is very mission-oriented. In this type of crisis, it’s natural for a country to mobilize its army. I’ve seen military convoys in the streets of Paris. It’s not right for the IDF to keep to its bases and train as if nothing else is happening around it.
Q: Maybe the lesson here could be that the Home Front Command should not be the only relevant entity—that it’s time to form a civilian body to handle national crises.
A: That’s a discussion that has been going on for years and it will continue after the current crisis, as well. I think that, because of Israel’s size and the complexity of the challenges it faces, there are more than a few advantages to the fact that the Home Front Command is part of the IDF, in terms of command and control, the natural affiliation with the military and the quality of the human capital.
Q: Is the IDF preparing to assume control of Arab and Bedouin communities, where the outbreak is also very aggressive?
A: It is my understanding that the situation in these sectors will be key [to curbing the spread of the coronavirus in Israel]. We are currently focusing on the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] sector, but we have to get a better understanding of the situation in the Arab and Bedouin sectors, as well. This is a developing event and there’s no doubt that some of the issues that will surface will have to be addressed in real time.
Q: Some missions are truly out of the military’s scope of operations, like assuming responsibility for nursing homes.
A: The challenge of geriatric institutions, and of at-risk populations like institutions housing the mentally disabled, is a major challenge for the State of Israel and one it simply cannot fail. The IDF doesn’t know how to provide nursing care—that is up to healthcare professionals and it is important that they continue to function properly. [The military and National Security Council] have put together a document listing 11 missions, from assisting the elderly through logistical assistance to municipalities to helping Magen David Adom. There is the hotel project [several hotels in Israel have been converted to house COVID-19 patients not in need of hospitalization–Y.L.], dealing with Israelis returning from overseas and, of course, civilian assistance like in Bnei Brak. We are ready and willing to assume additional responsibility, including if the hospitals can no longer treat all patients.
Q: If that happens, will the IDF set up field hospitals?
A: We are currently in the midst of preparatory work on the issue. In an emergency, the IDF usually calls up civilian doctors, but we won’t do that now, so field hospitals will be basic, manned by paramedics.
Q: In countries around the world the military also assists in storing bodies and holding mass burials.
A: Last week we held war games with all the relevant bodies and we followed the absolute extreme, worst-case scenario. We gained meaningful insight and were able to devise several contingencies for which we are now preparing. I sincerely hope things don’t come to that but as I said, we will perform any mission with which we are tasked.
Q: How long can this go on?
A: Some discussions involve “day after” scenarios, but that’s a while away from what I understand. The current situation involves learning to live with coronavirus, and later alongside it. It could take a long while.
Zamir’s schedule is almost entirely devoted to dealing with the coronavirus crisis. As a general rule, the IDF General Staff works in two parallel lines: some officers, like GOC Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai and Head of Technological and Logistics Directorate Maj. Gen. Itzik Turgeman, have been assigned to the crisis full time; some, like the Air Force and navy commanders, have been instructed to focus on operational missions; and some, like Kochavi, Zamir and the head Military Intelligence and the Operations Directorate, focus on both.
Zamir sees the coronavirus crisis as a full-blown threat, one that has the potential to undermine the military’s primary mission of defending the state. He believes most units understand the magnitude of the threat and have adapted accordingly, and dismisses the criticism leveled at the IDF, which has put bases on lockdown but nonessential personnel on shift work, something the critics say could actually cause higher infection rates in military ranks.
“It’s very complicated to simply shut down the entire military and I think we made the right choice,” he explains. “So far, this method has proven itself.”
Zamir may be right. As of April 8, some 146 soldiers were diagnosed with the virus, and 36 have recovered. Overall, 2,876 soldiers, career officers and civilian employees were under quarantine.
Q: Can you assure the public that with everything the military is required to do with respect to the coronavirus crisis it still performs its primary mission of protecting Israel’s borders?
A: The IDF is alert. Military Intelligence is monitoring the region, and we have troops on the ground in all sectors. We haven’t scaled back anywhere. Everyone is where they need to be.
Q: Still, the coronavirus could hit an IAF squadron or an infantry brigade.
A: The IDF is ready for any mission. One sick pilot doesn’t ground the entire air force. We’re monitoring developments across the Middle East and we know that the bad guys are still the bad guys. Some of them have even become more evil. If any of them are thinking about exploiting the coronavirus crisis to take action, I suggest they think again.
Q: Anyone specific in mind?
A: Iran. Despite the serious domestic crisis, Iran continues to focus on its nuclear program and violate the [2015 nuclear] deal. It is also constantly trying to tighten its grip on Syria and send strategic weapons to Hezbollah [in Lebanon]. Hezbollah is also still pursuing its precision-missile project.
Q: Speaking of Iran, what do you know about how hard it has been hit by the coronavirus?
A: No one knows exactly what’s going on there. The official numbers speak of over 3,000 fatalities, but we believe the real number is three or four times higher.
Q: Do you think the pandemic is a threat to the ayatollahs’ regime?
A: Iran has a failed regime that focuses on subversive activity outside its borders, and is a resounding failure in terms of meeting its own people’s needs. For a long time now, Iran has had real distress in all areas and I suppose the current crisis only exacerbates the feelings of frustration and disgust Iranians are feeling for their regime.
Q: There are concerns that Iran will try to use the global pandemic to race toward a nuclear weapon.
A: That concern exists and we keep an eye out for it.
Q: Are you worried that the global pandemic will be used as an excuse to lift the sanctions inflicted on Iran?
A: I think all humanitarian aid should be made available to Iran to enable it to fight [the pandemic], but the pandemic cannot be used as a pretext for lifting sanctions imposed over its negative actions, especially with respect to nuclear [activity]. These two issues have to be clearly separated, and we can see that the United States is very adamant about it.
Q: What is Iran’s status in the Middle East at this point? It is the largest coronavirus carrier in the region.
A: Without a doubt, Iran is the biggest source of the pandemic in the Arab world. This is clear in Lebanon, even though Hezbollah is trying to deflect criticism from the Iranians over the issue. But the Lebanese people are not stupid and they know the source of the infection in the “axis of evil.” They [the Iranians] are also the ones who brought the coronavirus to Syria, but nobody really knows what’s going on in Syria.
Q: How concerned are you about what is happening in the Palestinian Authority?
A: We’re very concerned because it is clear to us that the area between Jordan and the [Mediterranean] Sea is one epidemiological sphere, and the coronavirus does not distinguish between regions. You mentioned opportunities—there is a common interest here with the Palestinian Authority. They are deeply concerned about the spread of the virus and they are taking very serious steps to deal with it.
Q: What about the Gaza Strip?
A: We are not responsible for Gaza, Hamas is. They are the enemy, but we currently have a different, common enemy. [Hamas military leader in Gaza] Yahya Sinwar’s threat [last] week mostly reflects the pressure they are under. I think that the people in Gaza should ask themselves why their budgets are buried in terror tunnels, missiles and rockets, instead of going to hospitals, respirators and medical equipment.
Q: You were GOC Southern Command so you are closely familiar with Gaza’s problems. Are you concerned by the possibility it will implode?
A: As I said, the responsibility for Gaza lies with Hamas. We will allow international organizations to help as much as is needed in the fight against the pandemic, and we will definitely lend any assistance we can. It’s clear to us that if there’s an outbreak there the basic conditions in Gaza will make the situation very complicated.
Q: In which case they might provoke hostilities.
A: The Southern Command is prepared for this possibility, but Hamas should carefully consider this because not only will it not improve their situation, it will make it worse. We’re not as patient as we usually are these days and if necessary, we will react with twice the force. I hope they understand it.
Q: You’ve spent your entire military career facing off against the enemy and at the end of the day, your biggest challenge is a pandemic.
A: That’s definitely strange, but I’m as focused on this mission as I was on any of the previous ones. That’s true for the IDF as a whole. It’s true that we trained for a certain type of war and we’re currently fighting a different kind of battle, but I really believe we can make the most out of our military experience in the battle against the coronavirus.
Q: Are you concerned?
A: Of course. I’m concerned that we will lose control [over the outbreak]. But right now we are in control and it’s important that we keep being focused and driven, and make the right decision to see that the situation doesn’t get away from us.
Q: And on a personal level?
A: My mother had a complicated surgery two months ago and now she’s all alone at home. My wife’s parents are in their 80s and we don’t see them, either. I have my worries, just like everybody else.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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