As their cities and towns struggle with the coronavirus crisis, the mayors of some hard-hit locales have appointed former senior Israel Defense Forces officers to prevent further spread of the disease. But senior military sources have told Haaretz that the officials hired by these municipalities are doing more harm than good.
Military involvement in the crisis is mainly restricted to logistical support from the IDF’s Home Front Command in areas with a particularly high incidence of COVID-19, most of which are Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, in character. The military sources said that not only are the former IDF officials brought in by these municipalities not coordinating their efforts with the army, they are also contradicting the Home Front Command’s approach. More gravely, they said, the officials are misrepresenting the situation to the mayors, which undermines their authority and jeopardizes their handling of the situation going forward.
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Bnei Brak was the first ultra-Orthodox city that showed exceptionally high levels of coronavirus infection. In late March, the rapid spread of the virus in the densely crowded city led its mayor, Avraham Rubinstein, to appoint Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa to manage the crisis, and Numa brought in other former senior IDF officers.
The Home Front Command had already been concerned that putting outsiders in charge of crisis management could compromise the city’s ability to function in the long term, and that municipal officials would disclaim responsibility in the hopes that the generals would free their city from disaster. Nevertheless, the security establishment accepted Numa’s role in Bnei Brak out of the understanding that the city was a special case.
Senior defense officials in the emergency preparedness field said they were surprised to discover that after Numa’s appointment, other municipalities followed suit. The mayor of Betar Ilit, Meir Rubinstein, asked Interior Minister Arye Dery to appoint Maj. Gen. (res.) Yossi Bachar to manage the crisis in his city. At the same time, Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch was appointed to do the same in the town of Elad.
“The decision to bring in former army men to manage a municipality is a mistake, certainly in the long run,” a senior IDF officer told Haaretz. “Gal Hirsh and Yossi Bachar have no prior experience in crisis management in cities, certainly no more than a veteran mayor. They don’t know discourse among officials, they weaken the mayor’s status and authority, and even worse – in some cases, they do media interviews and post messages on social media that no official supports, and their statements become a plan of action without discussion by anyone,” the officer added.
Dery recently said in a press briefing that “Bnei Brak has a ‘temperature map’ prepared by Roni Numa the bottom line of which is that 50 percent of Bnei Brak can be released from restrictions because it has a low incidence of infection.” Dery added that he had requested the map be made so he could give it to a ministerial committee, so that “already today, 50 percent of Bnei Brak’s residents would no longer be subject to limitations.” Defense officials said they are not aware of such a plan and that it could not be applied responsibly, as it was not approved by the relevant officials.
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Senior defense officials said they were also uncomfortable with statements Numa himself made to Israel Hayom reporter Yoav Limor when he took the position in Bnei Brak. “We are now trying to build a system that will give us a better picture of what is happening in the city in terms of medicine, logistics and welfare,” the interview quoted Numa as saying. “As part of this, Home Front Command officials and the 98th Division’s intelligence unit have been instructed to build a intelligence overview of what is happening in the city.” The goal, according to Numa, was “to know what is happening in every apartment in Bnei Brak.” Security officials said that Numa’s statements were baseless and not substantiated by senior government or security officials.
Hirsch also came out with baseless statements regarding his role in the town of Elad. “We have the challenge of isolating everyone who needs to quarantine, to take out the sick and move them for suitable treatment and to make sure infection does not increase in Elad,” Hirsch told the press. “This is very much like wartime. I’m used to looking at the whites of the enemy’s eyes,” he added. Hirsch said he was “in touch with the Home Front Command, the Health Ministry, Magen David Adom, emergency officials and all government ministries,” to help those in need.
He took credit for establishing a testing compound in the city and evacuating patients in mild condition to hotels in which to recover. But according to army officials, not only did Hirsch and his counterparts in other locations not coordinate with them at all, and the security establishment sees no obligation to act according to their decisions, claiming that they create unrealistic expectations within these cities.
This is what happened in Betar Ilit, senior security officials told Haaretz. “To help our city vis-a-vis the various authorities that are not keeping up the pace, I have asked to appoint Maj. Gen. (res.) Yossi Bachar” for the good of the residents, Mayor Rubinstein said. Rubinstein added that for two weeks he had “asked the authorities for relevant information to deal with the virus, increase testing, and more, and unfortunately there was no response. Already this evening, a steering committee headed by Bachar will convene. On Sunday morning, massive testing will begin in the city.”
Senior security officials say that the mayors’ expectation that former top military brass will solve their problems with the wave of a magic wand is unrealistic. “The mayors thought that appointing former senior officers would open doors for them in the IDF, the Defense Ministry or other government ministries, to help the residents of these cities. But that’s not what happened and there is no intention of starting now,” one official said.
The IDF in general and the Home Front Command in particular believe the long-term damage of these appointments outweighs the benefit, certainly in places that demand expertise in emergency management. “The Home Front Command knows the capabilities of the cities, and what they can do to improve their situation, which cities can continue to function and which ones are collapsing. In some cases, former senior officers are under the impression that they are representatives of the security establishment and have been sent by the security establishment, when they are working independently without any commitment to deal with the crisis on a national level,” the senior official said.
A senior officer in the Home Front Command added that the roles the former officers are taking are leading municipalities to taking reduced responsibility in managing the crisis. “This is a long event that will be with us for the coming year. In the end, the local authorities will have to take control and manage it with the support of the IDF and all the government ministries,” he said.
The key issue, the Home Front Command officer believes, is the lack of a centralized organization to manage the crisis on a national level, under which all the ministries and municipalities would work. The officer said that under the present circumstances, “every former senior official called in to manage the crisis in one of the cities is creating media pressure and using personal connections to help that city.” This, the officer said, leads to irresponsible statements and compromises public opinion on the national level.
“The Home Front is a profession. You can’t bring in a major general or a brigadier general and tell him to manage a city without understanding what his realm of responsibility is, what his authority is, what his skills are,” and who determines how broadly he can act, a former senior Defense Ministry official, who was until recently involved in emergency management, said. He added that the coronavirus crisis will go on for a year or more, and municipalities must be separated from the Home Front Command and the Defense Ministry in decision making and management. “The way municipalities operate is the only thing that will determine how Israel emerges from this crisis on the civil level, not some former commander who still has ties to some officer or another,” he said.