Senior Israeli Army Commander Appointed to Handle Coronavirus Crisis in East Jerusalem

The move, which surprised several defense officials, comes amid Health Ministry warnings that the area is vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak

Yaniv Kubovich
Nir Hasson
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Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo in August 2019.
Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo in August 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Yaniv Kubovich
Nir Hasson

Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi appointed Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo to serve as an adviser to Jerusalem mayor Moshe Leon for handling the coronavirus crisis in East Jerusalem.

Milo, a commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ inter-services command and staff college, will be responsible for the troops operating in East Jerusalem to aid the local population and enforce the coronavirus emergency regulations.

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Bibi's got the perfect exit strategy - just not for the coronavirusCredit: Haaretz

The state of the COVID-19 outbreak in the eastern part of the city is much better than in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, but health officials in East Jerusalem have been warning for about a week of a possible outbreak that would significantly increase the number of patients in the area.

According to Health Ministry data, as of Sunday there were 120 confirmed cases in the area, mostly in the Old City and the nearby Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Many of them were infected by other family members. On Friday, Noel Abu Humus, a 78-year-old woman from Isawiyah, became the first East Jerusalem resident to die of COVID-19. Abu Humus seemed to have been infected by her son, and he caught the virus in the nursing home where he works in the western part of Jerusalem.

A Magen David Adom worker conducts a coronavirus next to the separation barrier in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.
A Magen David Adom worker conducts a coronavirus next to the separation barrier in the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Health Ministry officials said the low infection rate in East Jerusalem stems from Palestinians not being part of the first circles of contagion in Israel – people who returned from abroad and those who participated in parties over the Purim holiday. But now they are part of the present circle of infection of health-system and nursing-home workers.

It is yet unclear what authority Milo will have over the civilian population in East Jerusalem, if any. It's possible that if a widespread COVID-19 outbreak erupts in the area it would be declared a “special zone,” granting Milo unusual liberty to act there. Milo already participated in meetings on the crisis in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Milo is a highly esteemed officer, but the decision to fill the post with someone who is not from the Home Front Command came as a surprise to several senior defense officials.

Even though Jerusalem is officially under the authority of the commander of the Jerusalem District of the Home Front Command, Col. Itay Levy, it was decided for the first time to appoint a senior officer from outside the Home Front Command to oversee a civilian area during the COVID-19 crisis.

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit said that as part of the army's help in fighting the coronavirus, “Brig. Gen. Rafi Milo is helping out as an adviser to the mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Moshe Leon. The advice is on a number of matters, including the matter of the eastern part of the city, and it will continue until this coming Thursday.” Milo will advise Leon directly in setting policy concerning the residents of East Jerusalem.

Workers disinfect the St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.
Workers disinfect the St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem, April 16, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

In August 2019, Milo finished his term as commander of the 91st Division along the Lebanese border, during which he led Operation Northern Shield to demolish the tunnels dug by Hezbollah across the border and into Israel. During the operation, Milo crossed the border into Lebanon inside one of the tunnels, along with a few of his subordinates, without having received prior approval – and as a result was reprimanded and any promotion for him was held up for a year.

Brig. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, commander of the elite 98th Division, was sent – along with some of his troops – to assist police forces in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, but he was placed under the command of Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, a former head of the Home Front Command.

On Sunday, Fatah members in the Qalandiya refugee camp reported that in the camp and nearby Kafr Aqab neighborhood, 60 people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 out of the 270 people tested. In response, Fatah announced it would impose a strict closure on the refugee camp and surrounding neighborhoods – but the emergency council in Kafr Aqab denied these statistics and said only 14 cases contracted the coronavirus there.

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