Coronavirus

Inside Israel’s War on the Coronavirus

Mass mobilization effort and advanced tech helped Israel lead the world in recovery

Medical professionals at Ziv Medical Centre wave Israeli national flags
Medical professionals at Ziv Medical Centre wave Israeli national flags / Getty Images

The Israelis are known for their preparation. Threatened each day by a bevy of terror groups, the Jewish state has had contingency plans in place for most circumstances. Except one: the coronavirus pandemic that wrecked economies and sickened millions.

Israel, like many other smaller nations, had not developed plans to confront a global pandemic. But as the coronavirus swept across the world, Israeli society mobilized in a fashion only seen in times of war. Hotels, for instance, were converted into makeshift hospitals and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deployed across the country to help communities test for the illness and enact quarantines. Military technologies typically employed in times of combat were quickly converted to facilitate communications needed to keep the country running.

Israeli military officials told the Washington Free Beacon that this quick response—which included the entire government and military—helped to stave off the virus and potentially save many lives. In a country of nearly 9 million people, Israel has had just more than 16,000 confirmed cases of the virus, with 277 dying from it. As infections continue to increase across the globe, Israel's numbers have remained relatively flat, even as its Arab neighbors continue to struggle with the illness. Nearly half a million cases are centered in the Middle East in countries such as Iran and Turkey (with 120,000 and 150,000 cases, respectively), where the governments have struggled to contain the virus.

Israeli technological innovation, long a centerpiece of the country's economy, is helping the world combat the coronavirus. In addition to its work on new types of ventilator systems, Israel's military, government, and private sectors are developing new tools for detection and treatment. Israeli technology also is powering software that can help detect the virus from a safe distance.

In one clear sign of the country's success, the U.S. State Department chose Israel as the location of its first foreign trip in more than a month. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed there last week and discussed, among other things, lessons the United States could learn from Israel's response to the virus.

"The secretary is making this trip because he recognizes the United States and Israel have much to learn from each other as we address current threats, whether those threats stem from a global pandemic or from Iran's malign regional influence," David Schenker, the State Department's assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, said prior to the trip.

Technology has played a vital role in Israel's strategy, according to Captain Doris, commander of the country's Sprint Project, a massive online meeting place that was established within 24 hours of the outbreak (Doris's last name was withheld for security reasons). The virtual network connected hundreds of Israeli military, civilian, medical, and technological experts together so they could tackle pressing problems posed by the virus without coming into direct contact with one another.

Among other breakthroughs, the Sprint Project spurred the creation of a new type of ventilator specifically manufactured to aid those infected with COVID-19 who are experiencing severe breathing problems. The know-how for this technology has been shared with manufacturers across the world.

Doris said this "open innovation model" employed "the wisdom of the crowd" to tackle some of the most pressing issues caused by the virus. Doctors presented the online group with their problems, and teams of experts have been working to tackle them.

Other projects included compressing oxygen from the sea to help patients, particularly the elderly, who were suffering from breathing issues. Other efforts were supported by Israel's Intelligence Directorate, which helped to create the new ventilators.

"The coronavirus has a lot of bad things and it's a disaster, but also it gave us a lot of opportunities on the technological field," Doris said.

The response also included a massive on-the-ground operation jointly run by the IDF and Israeli police service.

"It does help to be what we call a mobilized society," Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, head of the IDF's international media branch, told the Free Beacon.

The IDF and the country's defense establishment utilized their international ties to import much needed supplies.

Instead of buying weapons or defensive equipment, "we've been buying medical gear and equipment," Conricus said.

While the IDF's "number one priority is to maintain combat readiness and maintain our continuity of operations so we can continue to defend along all of our borders," the country's fighting force mobilized to help the most at-risk communities battle the pandemic, Conricus said.

Initially, more than 6,000 IDF members were quarantined to prevent the virus from potentially spreading across the force. At present, just around 700 still remain in quarantine, with that number decreasing daily. Around 300 service members were infected with the virus, according to Conricus, who said there were no casualties.

This "very radical approach of isolating the combat units" prevented the coronavirus from crippling the fighting force at a time when Iranian-backed terror groups continue to wage attacks on Israel's borders. It also differs from that of other nations, including the U.S., which experienced severe outbreaks of the virus inside the military.

"When we compare this to other militaries, it is a statistic we are happy with," Conricus said.

IDF personnel also assisted in transporting more than 25,000 testing kits to different labs across the country. A small portion of the force, around seven to eight hundred troops, assisted police in enforcing lockdowns that were put in place early on.

As with the United States, there were challenges in ensuring the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities adhered to strict quarantine procedures. In New York City, one of the hardest hit areas of America, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly threatened Orthodox Jewish communities with severe penalties for assembling on the streets, causing outrage in the Jewish community.

Acutely aware of this potential tension point, the IDF shifted tactics when it approached Orthodox populations.

"We didn't go there trying to circumvent or trying to replace local authorities. We went there in a supporting position where we worked through the local authorities with their guidance and support and not instead of," Conricus said. "We weren't perceived as a threat."

A similar tactic was employed with Israeli-Arab communities and territories in the West Bank of Israel controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The IDF, "from day one," worked with PA officials to provide testing kits and disinfectants to area hospitals, which still have not reached maximum capacity as a result of the virus.

In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Israel has worked with international aid groups including UNICEF and the World Health Organization to coordinate the delivery of needed supplies. It has not provided any direct aid to Gaza due to the Hamas government's refusal to engage with Israel.

"Israel has been facilitating that aid into the Gaza Strip," Conricus said. "We understand we have a shared interest" with the Palestinians in avoiding a massive pandemic in Gaza.

Another challenge unique for Israel is the massive disinformation campaign that has alleged Jews are to blame for spreading the virus. These anti-Semitic allegations have been a hallmark of the rhetoric emerging from some Palestinian leaders and other Arab countries.

Still, Conricus said, Israel has worked with Arab populations inside and outside of the country "with complete disregard of whatever smear campaign is going on."