Sagi, a paratrooper in Battalion 890, has a very clear idea of his unit’s mission in Bnei Brak on the eve of Passover.
“We are here so we can all go home,” he said while standing guard at the entrance of the logistics center set up by the army in the ultra-Orthodox city under closure. Thousands of boxes of food were being unloaded and distributed throughout the town, which has become the main hub of coronavirus infection in Israel.
For civilians, the hope is to be able to finally leave their homes, once the spread of the virus is curbed and the shutdown lifted. But for a soldier in a combat unit – who has had no leave since the crisis began over a month ago – the hope is just the opposite: to finally be allowed to go home.
For the paratroopers and commando brigades of the 98th Division stationed in Bnei Brak to help the police keep order and distribute food – the mission and its importance is very clear.
“It’s a military mission like any other. No different from unloading ammunition,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Avi Ovad of the Home Front Command, who was commanding the convoys of trucks arriving at the logistics center.
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“If the IDF hadn’t arrived here, there would have been chaos,” explained Liron, another paratrooper who was in charge of disinfecting vehicles which have returned from Bnei Brak’s streets. “That’s why what we’re doing here is defending Israel.”
The residents of Bnei Brak don’t see the army’s presence in their neighborhood in quite the same way. As far as they’re concerned, they don’t need the army to save them. “People here are following the shutdown orders,” said Gabriel Ben Moshe, an avrech (married yeshiva student), who was leaving his apartment building just when a military convoy passed by. He pointed to the few residents on the street, nearly all of them wearing masks and keeping distance from each other, even at the entrances to the small food stores. It looked nothing like Bnei Brak of a week ago when the town was ignoring the shutdown.
“But it gives people a good feeling to see the soldiers here — especially when someone isolated alone at home is visited by the young soldiers. They don’t really need the food the soldiers are bringing, but it’s nice to know you haven’t been forgotten,” said Ben Moshe.
Wherever the military vehicles stopped, they were surrounded by curious children and grown-ups wishing them “hag sameah,” a happy holiday. Families brought out their last items of hametz (unleavened bread) and offered it to the soldiers.
The Haredi community, which doesn’t enlist, is often perceived as hostile to the IDF but in reality, young Haredi men are fascinated by the military and exhibit an astonishing knowledge of the units’ names. They were mystified by the fact that elite combat troops were walking around wearing fluorescent vests with “Home Front Command” emblazoned on them. The friendly reception shouldn’t come as a surprise – the ultra-Orthodox and the soldiers of the IDF’s top brigades are the two most disciplined and mission-focused groups in Israeli society. It makes sense for them to get along, especially as they are meeting on Haredi home turf and with the rabbis’ blessing. There’s mutual respect between those who wear uniforms and follow the orders of their officers or rabbis respectively.
An officer in Duvdevan, a unit specializing in undercover operations in Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank, said “this is the most important mission of my life, distributing food to families. Here I felt that I was actually helping the people whose homes I came to.” The soldiers moved around the city without weapons. The biggest operational challenge was finding the names of the family they had been given on the peeling mailboxes and keeping the cardboard boxes stuffed with tinned goods from falling apart.
A team from the Paratrooper’s Reconnaissance Company, went up long dark flights of stairs in three buildings, in a forlorn attempt to find a lonely old man they had been directed to on one side street. They had no choice in the end but to give up and deliver the parcels to another family whom the neighbors said “could do with some more food for Pesach.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the team commander said. “Even if I bring food to a family and find they have a villa and a Mercedes, that’s the mission.”
What isn’t clear about the mission is how much the military operation is actually helping Bnei Brak. According to IDF figures, 15,000 food deliveries were carried out, including 50 tons of fresh produce, but according to some of the teams, many of the addresses they received from Bnei Brak’s municipal welfare department were out-of-date and most of the families and individuals they did manage to locate turned out to have sufficient food for the festival. It seems that the headlines in the media of a “humanitarian disaster” and “hunger” in Bnei Brak were exaggerated.
Bnei Brak may be one of Israel’s poorest cities but everyone, even the elderly who cannot leave home, have help from family or neighbors or charitable organizations, even this year. “There are no lost or abandoned people in Bnei Brak,” says Meir Rotstein, who manages the emergency medical volunteers of Magen David Adom in the city. “But there are people who are stressed and afraid right now because of the coronavirus and the army being here boosts their confidence.”
The soldiers were not necessary either to help enforce the shutdown. This was done by the police and city employees, with the military only there as backup. And anyway, by now Bnei Brak is following the shutdown orders religiously.
“It’s nice that they’re here, but we don’t really need them,” said another yeshiva student, watching a team of soldiers lug boxes. “We got the message about the virus too late because thank God we don’t have internet. But now everyone is following the regulations. But the soldiers being here does calm people down.” Which people? “The secular people who are so worried that we in Bnei Brak are spreading the illness. Now that their soldiers are here, they can feel that they are in control of the situation. It’s good. They should be calm over Pesach.”