The illusion of security as a tool of social control: The militarisation of pandemic response in Israel
Israel is a highly militarised state with a highly militarised society, and the COVID-19 pandemic interacts with this militarisation in a variety of ways – from the way it has been used as a cover and an excuse for violence against Palestinians1 to the way it has served as a pretext for enhancing authoritarian trends in general.2 The political context, in which the pandemic allowed current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to maintain his grip on power despite the corruption charges he faces in court, has received its fair share of media attention too.
However, here we would like to highlight another aspect of this intersection: the way in which the military and other “security services” took over pandemic crisis management in Israel. This is particularly instructive, because it illustrates the way in which militarism uses fear and the illusion of security as instruments of social control.
In mid-March 2020, as the first lockdown orders were going into effect, the Israeli media reported on a “battle between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Health” over “Who will manage the coronavirus crisis”.3 Ministry of Health officials complained that their Ministry of Defence peers were attempting to take over medical aspects of the pandemic crisis management without having the necessary expertise, while Ministry of Defence officials claimed that they alone have experience in managing emergency situations, so the management of the crisis should be left to them.
Waging such battles over power and resources against civilian authorities is one form of warfare in which the Israeli “security system” truly excels, and in this case, too, an epic victory followed. As one author described the situation a month later, “The debate in Israel right now is about whether the responsibilities of managing the COVID-19 crisis should be transferred to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), the Mossad [Israel’s chief spy agency], the Shin Bet [a.k.a. General Security Service], or another ministry”.4 Let us list some of the conquests made:
The military was tasked with the overall responsibility for Israel’s elderly population during the pandemic in late March.5 In early April, the military’s Home Front Command was tasked with the responsibility to assist nursing homes for the elderly, effectively taking over many aspects of their operation (nursing homes’ administrators soon complained anonymously to reporters that this intervention was largely useless).6 Other military divisions were charged with the acquisition of medical supplies,7 or were put “in command” of hotels, where confirmed COVID-19 patients stay in isolation.8 Not to be outdone, the Mossad announced with great fanfare that it had obtained, in undisclosed ways, 100,000 COVID-19 testing kits (it soon turned out these kits were useless because they missed the necessary type of swabs).9 A joint “war room”, run by the IDF, the Mossad and the Ministry of Defence, was set up inside one of Israel’s largest hospitals to coordinate the pandemic response, and Israel’s most famous special operations military unit, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, was brought in to streamline the logistics.10 Faced with all this military intervention, medical professionals, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced concerns about military officials increasingly inserting themselves into decision-making around medical treatment and research.11
Now, active-duty military personnel are not the only ones charged with managing the pandemic crisis in Israel. Retired senior officers are involved as well. These men (with only a handful of exceptions, they are indeed men) are automatically considered to be qualified for any top position in the Israeli government and civil service, and that was as true as ever for positions created to manage aspects of the crisis. And if on April 1st we were told that the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit was brought in to take over the logistics of COVID-19 testing, by May, a private company owned by one Noam Ya’acov – a retired logistics officer from that unit, recruited to be part of that logistics management effort as a reservist – was awarded a contract for managing pandemic-related acquisitions for the Ministry of Health, bypassing mandatory tender requirements.12
Which brings up the question of motivation. For the officers themselves, there are obviously the perks of money (as in Ya’acov’s case) and power involved. There is also, to be sure, the genuine wish to help out at a time of crisis, coupled with a sense of superiority and entitlement that blinds these military officers to the damage they do by pushing aside civilians with a more relevant kind of expertise. For the different military units and other “security services”, there is also the incessant internal competition over public relations, and the desire to again and again be portrayed to the Israeli public as hero saviours. Indeed, collecting all this information about military intervention in pandemic crisis management in Israel was made easy by the constant stream of (often ridiculously flattering) stories about the heroic exploits of “our brave men in uniform” pushed to the Israeli media. One prominent Israeli journalist quipped in this context in an op-ed: “Almost as a matter of course, you ask yourself whether this is an army that has a public relations office or a public relations office that has an army”.13
In the end, all these anecdotes add up to a larger story about social control in a militarised society. A government proclaiming fearful scenarios and sending civilians to shelter, as best they're able, replays countless episodes in the lives of most Israelis. Until 2020, these all involved military outbreaks, often ones deliberately provoked by Israel’s own military operations. Fear is a potent and central ingredient of Israel's militarisation. It’s simplistic but sadly true: A population preoccupied with dangers "from outside" focuses less on acute government failures “inside” and remains more compliant. Fear is why a large segment of the citizenry still go on feeding the military with its children.
In response to this fear, the military and other “security services” offer the carefully cultivated illusion of security: we are taught to rely on the supposedly assured heroic victory of the Israeli military, not on the uncertainties of, say, epidemiology, or negotiating peace, to deliver us from all dangers and enemies. And in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the illusory nature of this security myth comes into sharp relief. In the end, the military was put in charge of Israel’s pandemic response not because of its (non-existent) expertise in handling medical crises, but because of its (very real) ability to inspire a false sense of security in many parts the general public.
1 See, for example, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-police-officers-attack-two-arab-jaffa-residents-during-arrest-1.8696980 and https://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20200319_abuse_of_palestinians_in_al_esawiyah_overrides_fear_of_covid_19.
2 For example, all cell phones in Israel have been involuntarily traced by the General Security Service; see: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israeli-coronavirus-surveillance-who-s-tracking-you-and-what-happens-with-the-data-1.8685383.
3 https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5698789,00.html (Hebrew only).
4 https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2020/04/20/covid-19-management-and-decision-making-in-israel/ The author of this piece, a retired Israeli Brigadier General, is not pleased with the terms of this debate, and instead argues for keeping all authority in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Security Cabinet, advised by the National Security Council.
6 https://www.timesofisrael.com/as-nursing-homes-become-virus-hotspots-government-turns-to-military-for-help/, and for the reaction: https://www.haaretz.co.il/health/corona/.premium-1.8745563 (Hebrew only).
7 See, e.g., this breathless report (in Hebrew) on the brave exploits of the Israeli Airforce pilots flying in medical supplies from Italy: https://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-5715048,00.html.
8 https://www.themarker.com/news/health/.premium-1.8725830 (Hebrew only).
10 See: https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/idfs-elite-sayeret-matkal-playing-role-in-war-against-coronavirus-623090 and https://www.haaretz.co.il/health/corona/.premium.highlight-1.8729348 (Hebrew). These items appeared in the Israeli media on April 1st and seemed so ridiculous that many of us first suspected this to be an April Fools’ Day joke, but they turned out to have been correct.
11 https://www.haaretz.co.il/health/corona/.premium-1.8761889 (Hebrew only).
12 https://www.haaretz.co.il/health/corona/.premium-1.9065298 (Hebrew only).