“Operation Alon” will be led by a brigadier general of the IDF’s Home Front Command out of a base near the city of Ramla and will begin its work in the coming days, the spokesman said.
As of Tuesday, Israel had recorded more than 85,300 coronavirus cases and 619 deaths.
The decision to transfer the testing and tracing operation from the Health Ministry to the military was the first major action by Ronni Gamzu, a physician and former hospital administrator who last month was named the country’s first coronavirus coordinator. He said shortcomings in the ministry’s effort propelled the move to elevate the army, a step that had been resisted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The Ministry of Health has failed to cut the rate of infections,” Gamzu said in an interview. The military, meanwhile, is considered one of Israel’s most adept institutions. “They can strike missiles from the air,” he said.
The delay in assigning a bigger pandemic role to the military had frustrated many in Israel’s public health community, who have touted the military’s logistical prowess and its long-standing preparations for any biological and chemical attacks.
Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said health officials had long assumed that the military would take a lead role in any major outbreak and had regularly gamed out pandemic scenarios with IDF officers.
But even as some of Netanyahu’s rivals called for the IDF to do more, including Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister and current defense minister, the military had taken on only spot missions. Most notably, the army operates “corona hotels,” where asymptomatic and mildly ill patients quarantine while infectious.
Now it will take on the central mission of expanding the nationwide testing and tracing campaign. Commanders said they hoped to shorten the average time to get test results from five days to no more than 36 hours.
The changes are part of a major reboot of the national covid-19 strategy, as Israel has plummeted from a pandemic success story to suffering the highest per capita morbidity rate in the world, according to Gamzu.
With cases spiking in recent weeks and threatening to overwhelm some hospitals, he said the country might have to return to a general lockdown if the pace of new infections does not slow by early September. The outcome of his efforts will also influence the fate of key milestones, including opening up air travel and reopening schools, which were a significant source of the transmission surge when classes resumed in May.
“We are trying to get coronavirus down without a lockdown. That is my goal,” Gamzu said. “Israel is trying to do what no other country has done.”
Gamzu has established a color-coded rating system for individual communities, with red and orange neighborhoods subject to increased restrictions and receiving more resources. He has set up separate command centers in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods battling stubborn outbreaks.
The early moves have drawn praise from the medical community. Levine described Gamzu as “studious, brilliant and a great manager,” adding: “He understands the difference between the professionals and the politicians.”
Gamzu takes the helm six months into Israel’s outbreak, after Netanyahu repeatedly resisted calls to appoint a single overseer of the complex pandemic campaign.
During the first wave of infections, Netanyahu dominated the response, appearing almost nightly on television to announce border closures, stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. But he is also accused of rushing the reopening of schools, restaurants and other activities in the spring, leading to a new wave of infections.
With a new unity government taking power in May and the prime minister focused on other issues — including the proposed annexation of settlements in the West Bank and his ongoing corruption trial — the pandemic response grew more piecemeal. Attempts to reinstitute restrictions on restaurant dining and beachgoing have been weakened by cabinet infighting and objections in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Gamzu’s appointment is meant to cut through much of the bickering, although he has had to navigate the political winds, too. He opposed the typical August influx of thousands of international students who come for a stint at yeshivas all over Israel. But he acquiesced to ministers and Knesset members from religious parties and greenlighted the arrival of about 12,000 young scholars, many from the United States, on the promise that they quarantine in their dorm rooms for two weeks before joining the crowded communal study halls.
“Finally, after months of delay, they appoint someone to deal with all this, and they are still haggling over what he can do,” lamented Dan Ben-David, a professor at Tel Aviv University and president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research. “The politicians need to set the goals, find the resources and then get out of his way.”
Gamzu, who has degrees in medicine, management and law, is a former high-ranking Health Ministry official and, most recently, was the head of Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, Israel’s largest acute-care hospital. He was named to the coronavirus post only after another candidate dropped out, reportedly over concerns about the autonomy he would have.
But Gamzu insists he has the power to maneuver Israel’s complex bureaucracies.
“I have all the autonomy I need,” he said. “I ignore the politics. I don’t care who is mad at me.”