Israeli Reservists Say Coronavirus Crisis Commanders Fail to Wear Masks or Socially Distance

Letter to chief of staff warns that officers are not following guidelines and describes use of insecure computers and disdainful treatment

Yaniv Kubovich
Bar Peleg
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A Home Front Command soldier at a drive-through coronavirus testing station in Jerusalem, September 2020.
A Home Front Command soldier at a drive-through coronavirus testing station in Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Yaniv Kubovich
Bar Peleg

Reservists called up to serve on the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command’s coronavirus crisis response team have complained to the chief of staff and the IDF’s personnel ombudsman that officers in the transport battalion were failing to adhere to health safety guidelines.

The reservists said these commanders held talks with dozens of soldiers at a time in closed tents although some of the soldiers present showed symptoms of coronavirus infection.

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The IDF began issuing emergency call-up orders as part of the establishment of the so-called Alon Command, tasked with assisting the Health Ministry in conducting coronavirus testing and contact tracing.

In a letter to the chief of staff, the reservists said that the commander of the transport battalion and his deputy, and other officers, do not wear masks and do not socially distance as required. On Thursday, the reservists said a Rosh Hashanah toast was held for about 100 soldiers in a closed and crowded tent. They said the battalion commander and his deputy had held the event despite knowing that some of the soldiers had developed symptoms of the virus, and those soldiers were later diagnosed as positive for COVID-19. Officers present at meetings at command headquarters say social distancing is not observed at these sessions and masks are not worn.

The reservists also said they are being required to use their personal computers, which are not classified, for army business to enter in data on civilians infected by the virus or who may require quarantine. “We are fulfilling our tasks using Google Docs and that is not secure and not military-issue. There is no IDF web. For more than a month the army could have brought us some computers that we could work with using the IDF database,” they said in their complaint.

Soldiers work in a situation room at the headquarters of the Home Front Command, in Ramle, Israel, Aug. 25, 2020.
Soldiers work in a situation room at the headquarters of the Home Front Command, in Ramle, Israel, Aug. 25, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

The reservists warned that from the outset they had not been provided with basic details on where to report or what their task would be. They wrote that because of the uncertainty, a good many reservists did not report for duty.

Battalion commanders told at first to call up 540 reservists, but three days before they were to report for duty, they were told to scale back to 240. Two hundred reservists showed up, and deployed to the north, center and south of the country. But on the first day, commanders were told to release some of the reservists because there were too many. However, this order was not reported to the central command, which continued to call up another 40 reservists who did not report for duty. According to the reservists, this gave them the feeling they were being mistreated, after having abandoned everything to report for duty.

In their complaint, the reservists say that on the day they reported for duty, two majors were called up for duty in the transport battalion. The battalion commander was gruff with them and said he had no need for their service, the complaint said. The two officers responded that they had already been called up so they were prepared to do anything that was needed, to which the battalion commander responded that they would be used “only as drivers.”

The letter described one case in which soldiers were allegedly required to drive to a certain destination, but the vehicle they were assigned was not working. The officer in charge of the trip demanded a replacement vehicle, but the deputy battalion commander, who heard the exchange, allegedly shouted at the officer and relieved him of duty then and there. “The conduct of the deputy battalion commander was shameful,” the letter says.

According to the reservists, the commander of the reservist company, a leutenant colonel, was also treated scornfully by the battalion commander in the presence of his soldiers whenever the company failed to meet its quota of transport of samples. After this allegedly happened a number of times, the company commander asked to be relieved of duty. He was told to leave and no substitute officer was found.

In another case, a deputy company commander made a remark to the battalion commander about his scornful attitude toward officers and other reservists. In response, the battalion commander told him he was immediately relieved of duty and should head home. The deputy commander refused to leave and according to the letter, the heads of the Alon Command began to harass him. In the end, he left the base humiliated.

The officer who spoke to Haaretz said: “I was under terrible psychological pressure during that time. You work from morning until past midnight. The pressure of the work is severe and there are constant tasks. Teams that don’t meet their quotas are reprimanded.”

According to the officer, the reservists transported samples as required, but the conduct of the officers made things difficult. “I don’t work for a moving company, but I’m sure that any moving company or even a taxi company would be more efficient,” he said.

The IDF responded: “The claims in the report have not yet been received by the IDF ombudsman. When they are received the applicant will receive a response as is usual. The IDF has a deep appreciation for all of its reservists that report for duty. The reserves are treated professionally and appreciation is shown toward the reservists for their time.”

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