Almost two years after it first broke out, the COVID-19 virus continues to deceive the world by changing its shape frequently and claiming many victims even where it had assumingly been vanquished. While domestic civilian agencies are ultimately best suited to lead the response to the pandemic, the capacity of the public health system—even in the most developed countries—has become overextended. Considering the urgent need for additional personnel and resources, countries across the globe have mobilized some degree of military involvement in response to the crisis, ranging from setting up field hospitals to delivering protective equipment or enforcing lockdowns. Yet, relative to the militaries of other democracies, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were deployed more extensively to fight the pandemic during 2020–2021.
The IDF’s Struggle Against an Invisible Enemy
Ever since its establishment, the IDF has been involved in civilian missions, especially in the fields of civil infrastructure and education. Given its logistical and budgetary capabilities, it was only natural that the IDF would be extensively involved in the country’s response to the virus from the beginning of the pandemic. Much of the military support was provided or coordinated by the Home Front Command (HFC), the arm of the IDF specializing in civilian protection, usually in times of conflict, and experienced in cooperating with local authorities. Presumably, this should have been the mission of the National Emergency Authority, a civilian authority established in 2007 in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, whose role was to support the home front in emergency situations—war, fires, earthquakes—and prepare for a global pandemic as well. Over the years, however, its functions have diminished to the point that it has become a small advisory body, devoid of executive authorities, and thus creating a vacuum for the HFC to fulfill.
Against this background, the HFC provided logistical support to civilian authorities that supplied aid to the civilian population, such as food, medication, and essential services to the elderly. The HFC has also been operating several COVID-19 “drive-through” testing locations across the country, making testing more accessible for civilians, in addition to initially being charged with operating hotels for recovering COVID-19 patients who did not require medical support. At the end of March 2020, the Israeli government decided to allocate 1,400 soldiers of the HFC to assist the police in enforcing lockdowns and maintaining public order. In the field of public information, the HFC operated a call center that provided guidelines and other necessary information regarding COVID-19 for civilians, and its troops distributed leaflets in several languages (in Arabic, Russian, and Amharic as well as Hebrew and English), explaining the significance of complying with the government instructions.
Considering the recent spread of the Omicron variant, hundreds of soldiers have been sent door-to-door to test civilians who had returned to Israel from African countries, where the Omicron variant first appeared. The HFC also has been tasked with the mission of coordinating vaccination campaigns in schools and vaccination sites in local authorities, to make the vaccines as accessible as possible to the Israeli public.
In July 2020, when it became apparent that the Ministry of Health was unable to operate an effective system of epidemiological investigations, the HFC was charged with the task and established the “Alon” (Oak) Coronavirus Command Center, as well as the “Ella” (Terebinth) Unit. The latter uses a special digital system, developed by the IDF’s SIGINT Agency, Unit 8200, and the Cyber Defense Directorate. During 2021 these units performed 706,271 investigations, carried out 13,540,000 PCR tests, and operated 28 hotels for quarantine purposes. In no other democracy have the armed forces been tasked with similar missions.
The involvement of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) in the COVID-19 crisis was multidimensional and controversial. Its technological unit created an information management software for the coronavirus testing labs and conducted epidemiological analysis of COVID-19 patients to determine hotspots of where the infection spread in order to help the local authorities focus their efforts in preventing the disease from spreading in their vicinity.
Additionally, the DMI established the National Information and Knowledge Center for the Fight against COVID-19. The central task of the center is to analyze the spread of the virus and identify risks and opportunities, in addition to providing governmental organizations with data analysis, global information, and recommendations to assist policy formulation.
The DMI’s secret units were also called to support the crisis response. At the beginning of the crisis, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal)—Israel’s most prominent special forces unit—was called upon to deliver samples taken from testing locations to the laboratories certified to carry out the tests at the beginning of the crisis. The technological unit of DMI, known as Unit 81, was responsible for designing sophisticated gadgets, such as monitors for remote control operations, personal protection gear, and designated ambulances.
The Mission is Far From Accomplished
The vast resources at the disposal of the IDF, its expertise in dealing with crisis situations, and the public trust it enjoys, have led some politicians during the crisis to call for even greater military involvement in Israel’s response to the pandemic. A few have even suggested, with seemingly public support, the notion that the coordination of response should be transferred from the health authorities to the IDF.
Experts of military–social relations tend to agree that it is unlikely that the IDF will take advantage of its role expansion, as reflected during the crisis. The IDF’s extensive involvement in the national response to COVID-19, however, also caused many to demand that the government limit the IDF’s role, due to several concerns. Some fear that this involvement could undermine the delicate balance of military–social relations in Israel, as well as the foundations of the presumably fragile Israeli democracy. Some are concerned that using the military for unpopular and controversial missions, such as enforcing lockdowns, may provoke antagonism toward it, while others felt that the military should stay focused on its primary responsibilities of warfare; and against the background of the instability of the Israeli political system, some invoked the fear that military involvement in a civilian crisis might paint the IDF as a tool of the political echelon.
As for the criticism regarding the IDF’s involvement in unpopular missions, such as enforcing lockdowns, the use of the IDF in these missions was done with great care, recognizing its sensitivity. Thus, soldiers who operated in the civilian sphere were not given police authority and were instructed to not carry weapons. Furthermore, in most cases, the different sectors, even the Arab and ultra-Orthodox ones, welcomed the IDF troops. Although the IDF traditionally enjoys the highest level of public trust, in a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, less than a third surveyed (31%) gave the IDF a good score regarding its budgetary conduct. Thus, by demonstrating the considerable role that the IDF played during the pandemic, the COVID-19 crisis has provided an opportunity to show taxpayers the necessity of public spending on the IDF. Therefore, this experience has enabled the IDF to boost its image, especially among populations where the majority do not serve in the military (ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs).
Despite the criticism levelled at the military intelligence units and their involvement in this civilian crisis, the DMI has utilized its significant capabilities in analyzing big data using advanced technologies and has provided decision makers with valuable information regarding infection and vaccination indexes, without exposing any personal details and violating individual privacy. In doing so, it has demonstrated the growing need for an intelligence capacity that is relevant for civilian needs, no less than strategic or military ones. One should also differentiate between the actions of the DMI during the crisis and the actions of the internal Israeli Security Agency, which included digital tracking capabilities to monitor infected civilians and those who have been exposed to them—actions that have been subjected to harsh public criticism. However, since the government had declared a national state of emergency in March 2020, following the high infection rates, it was both legitimate and legal to use the IDF—including its DMI units—for the sake of monitoring the situation.
A caveat is required: For the past two years, I served a total of almost eight months as a reservist in the HFC, and for the last four months, I have served as an advisor to the Ministry of Health, and so I have been privy to both the military and civilian aspects of the COVID-19 crisis management. I feel confident in claiming that, at least from my perspective, the military is well aware that it is subordinate to the political echelon and the relevant bureaucratic hierarchy, and that its joint efforts with the Ministry of Health, as well as with other governmental organizations, have been fruitful, transparent, and, in most cases, effective. In terms of the actual results, the IDF proved once again its utility in responding to a large-scale crisis and the advantages of utilizing the IDF outweigh the disadvantages. There is still much to be done, however, to win this war; considering the need to act rapidly and effectively, the involvment of the armed forces—as demonstrated in other countries as well—is inevitable and crucial.
 Stuart Cohen and Meir Elran, “Patterns of Military Activity in the Battle against the Coronavirus: Lessons for Israel from Other Nations,” INSS Insight No. 1300 (April 17, 2020), https://www.inss.org.il/publication/the-army-and-the-fight-against-the-coronavirus/
 Yagil Levy, “The People’s Army ‘Enemising’ the People: The COVID-19 Case of Israel,” European Journal of International Security (2021), p. 2; https://doi.org/10.1017/eis.2021.33