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Passover Curfew Is a Sign It’s All Political in Israel, Even the Coronavirus Pandemic

Netanyahu and his health minister ignore experts' view, while a rather helpful army won't be assuming responsibility for coronavirus fight, not as long as Bennett remains defense minister

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Netanyahu, left, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a special meeting on the coronavirus epidemic.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, left, and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a special meeting on the coronavirus epidemic at the Health Ministry's Tel Aviv command center, Feb. 23, 2020.Credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash 90
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Most things, if not all, are political. Even at the height of the global coronavirus crisis, a considerable portion of the government’s decisions have been influenced by internal considerations, some of which seem petty. The best example is the amazing backflip over the past 24 hours with regard to imposing a closure on ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods where infection is widespread.

Bnei Brak, which heads the list of infected towns, called for help and got it – a closure on that city alone, along with an impressive mobilization of the army to supply residents’ needs. But measured by the number of patients per 1,000 residents, that list is led by other ultra-Orthodox towns, such as Elad and Modi’in Ilit. There are also large concentrations of patients in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

Journalist Gili Cohen of the public broadcaster Kan reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially wanted to impose a closure on eight other ultra-Orthodox towns. But both ultra-Orthodox cabinet ministers, Yaakov Litzman and Arye Dery, objected, so the proposal was softened to make the closure less strict, enabling residents who work out of town to continue doing so. Yet this proposal, too, was later scrapped, and the virtual cabinet meeting was postponed.

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It appears that a tighter lockdown will be implemented nationwide, with a focus on an issue that has worried Netanyahu for more than a week – preventing big family gatherings on the first night of the Passover holiday. This is in fact a potential source of infection, but preventing it can’t substitute for a massive effort in ultra-Orthodox towns.

Not only did Netanyahu change direction, but the Health Ministry, led by Litzman, has also been stressing the importance of taking preventive measures for the first night of Passover. For some reason, the ministry didn’t push on Monday for the adoption of its professional view to impose a closure on localities with high incidence of the virus as essential to fighting its spread.

In some European countries that have been hard hit by the virus, the daily numbers of new patients and deaths seem to have started declining. Social distancing, which climaxed in total lockdowns in countries like Italy and Spain, has apparently started producing results in the three or more weeks since the measures were adopted.

In Israel, both the incidence of the disease and the death rate have been lower than in those countries. But it’s still hard to discern a clear trend here, aside from the fact that the numbers of severely ill patients and those on respirators are still rising relatively moderately and haven’t gotten out of control.

The turnaround point

A group of scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science predicts that a continued lockdown will result in a significant drop in numbers of new patients and new deaths in another week or so. The turnaround point, they say, will be when there are only 10 to 20 new patients a day.

If the present policy continues and there are no new severe outbreaks, they think Israel could reach that point towards the end of April. That would enable a gradual reopening of the economy, with continued restrictions focusing on specific towns with high rates of infection.

But this prediction seems optimistic. Ending the lockdown may well lead to a new, rapid and widespread outbreak.

Moreover, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is spearheading the American war against the virus, has warned, if the battle isn’t a coordinated global one, and if the virus proves to be seasonal (meaning it spreads less quickly in warm weather), the coronavirus will probably return to the Northern Hemisphere this fall or winter. This is likely to be a long war, and it may not end until a vaccine is developed.

Eight key matters

The Israel Hayom daily reported Monday about a letter that Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi sent to Netanyahu and to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. Kochavi asked that the military be given responsibility for eight key matters related to the coronavirus pandemic, including testing, collection and analyzing data. The army, he said, is ready immediately to assume overall responsibility for fighting the virus.

But apparently this won’t be happening, certainly not as long as Bennett remains defense minister. Things might change once a new government is established and a new defense minister appointed, but for now, the army’s involvement in the effort remains limited. Kochavi’s letter will remain on file for the sake of a future commission of inquiry (and those with malice would add that it’s one of the reasons the letter was sent).

In Bnei Brak, at least, soldiers are doing essential work. It was fascinating to listen to Monday’s briefing by a senior officer whose subordinates are distributing food parcels and other items to local residents. Beyond the lively discussion about peppers, carrots and potatoes, a high level of commitment to the mission was evident, along with the understanding that this, rather than the battlefield, is where the army’s real test now lies.

Israeli soldiers distributing food parcels in Bnei Brak.
Israeli soldiers distributing food parcels in Bnei Brak during a lockdown in the Tel Aviv suburb due to the coronoavirus pandemic, April 5, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

When the officer was asked what comparative advantage the army has in Bnei Brak, his answer seemed relevant to the entire country. The army, he said, has three advantages.

One is command and control capabilities “that enable us to collect and understand data.” The second is an extensive logistical network and third is that “the army is an infinite resource. We will be here as long as necessary.”

All of that is true. But the army probably couldn’t replace professionals in handling nursing home patients or deciding how many medical staffers are needed to handle respirators.
Its operations in Bnei Brak, and now also in other ultra-Orthodox towns and in a few nursing homes, are appropriate and useful.

But on its own home turf, the army can’t provide an example of seriousness in addressing the pandemic. Conversations with parents of soldiers provide indications of disarray when it comes to policy, to frequently changing orders and above all, to enforcement.

Following the outbreak of the virus, the military initially planned to keep soldiers away from civilians to the greatest extent possible, on the assumption that the virus was running rampant on the “outside,” and that since soldiers are young, the incidence of the disease in the army would be mild and barely felt. But in practice, it’s very difficult to insulate the army from the virus, and not only because it’s assisting civilians.

Many soldiers have recently been given a short leave, or longer leave after finishing a course or have been sent home for other reasons in the period leading up to the Passover holiday. These soldiers can spread a new chain of infection, within their families or in their units when they return to base. 

And even though more attention is being paid to social distancing among soldiers outdoors on base, the rule isn’t being enforced sufficiently indoors – in the barracks or the classrooms.

When the crisis began, the army planned to divide each unit into smaller groups to prevent mass outbreaks within units. But at best, this system works only in intelligence units, air force squadrons and perhaps on naval vessels. At the moment, there seems no real way to enforce it in combat units or during training.

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