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IDF bars all foreign travel for troops, considers next steps to confront virus

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday said it was forbidding all soldiers from traveling abroad and canceling all international exercises in light of concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters that these measures, and others that are still in the works, are meant to “ensure the fitness of the IDF and prevent damage to it.”

Zilberman said the military was working closely with the Health Ministry and abiding by its directives, and in some cases even being stricter than officially required.

So far one IDF soldier has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, while hundreds have been quarantined for either traveling to countries with a high incidence of the disease or coming in contact with an infected person.

Zilberman said the military was prepared to take whatever steps were necessary to ensure the functioning of the IDF, prevent the spread of the disease within it and assist in the national response.

“If a soldier had the virus and was in contact with his company and we have to [quarantine] the company, that’s what we’ll do,” he said.

Zilberman said the restriction on international travel will go into effect Friday at noon and will be imposed on conscripts and career soldiers alike.

A committee may permit some exceptions to this rule on a case-by-case basis, either for specific operational trips abroad or for troops who need to leave the country for pressing medical or family reasons.

All international exercises — both ones the IDF is participating in abroad and those being hosted in Israel — have been canceled, though some exceptions may be made on an individual basis, the spokesperson said.

IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir was tasked with leading the military’s response to the virus, alongside the Operations Directorate, which is responsible for the IDF’s international relations; the Medical Corps; and the Home Front Command, which works closely with civilian emergency response services.

On Thursday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett held a meeting with senior IDF officers, including Zamir, and other national security officials to discuss how the government would response if the virus continued to spread, his office said.

The military will hold another situation assessment Thursday evening to discuss a series of additional steps that it is preparing to take in order to curb the spread of the virus, Zilberman said.

During this high-level meeting, officers will consider issuing stricter orders for operating command centers and headquarters to limit contact in the often tightly packed locations; limiting conferences and ceremonies; conducting training sessions for troops; purchasing specialized equipment; and requiring people to fill out a screening questionnaire before entering military facilities.

Zilberman said the IDF was trying to be transparent about its efforts by publishing information twice a day on its website.

On Wednesday night, the IDF canceled its biennial joint air defense exercise with the United States, dubbed Juniper Cobra, in which thousands of American and Israeli soldiers around the world were due to participate.

The Israeli military also announced that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was postponing a scheduled trip to the United States due to Health Ministry recommendations against travel abroad.