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Facing Coronavirus crisis, Israel calls in army

Ramle (Israel): Over a three-decade military career, Israeli Major General Ori Gordin has led commando raids, fought in wars and even earned a degree at Harvard. But he has never seen anything quite like his latest mission.

As head of the Israeli army's Home Front Command, Gordin is now overseeing the military's Coronavirus "task force", formed last month to bring one of the developed world's worst outbreaks under control.

Its main responsibility is taking the lead in contact tracing and breaking chains of infection.

"This is a operation on a different scale," Gordin told The Associated Press, speaking in his first interview since taking over the Home Front Command in May.

Israel appeared to be a model of crisis management last spring, when the Coronavirus first arrived. Authorities quickly sealed the borders and imposed tough lockdown measures, bringing the number of new infections down to just a handful each day in May.

But officials reopened the economy too quickly, and the virus soon returned. Throughout the summer, the rate of new cases has remained at record levels, while the death toll has steadily climbed to over 900 people.

Under heavy public pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in July appointed Dr Ronni Gamzu, a respected hospital director and former Health Ministry director, as the national Coronavirus project manager.

One of Gamzu's first acts was to turn to the military for help, giving it the critical mission of cutting the chain of infections.

You have to have the best operational forces, and in Israel, it's the IDF," he told journalists recently, referring to the Israel Defense Forces.

Founded in the wake of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, the Home Front Command serves as Israel's civil defense force. It helps maintain the country's network of bomb shelters and air raid sirens, and is trained to assist civilians during wars and natural disasters.

It has sent rescue teams around the world to help countries coping with earthquakes, tsunamis and other emergencies.

For months, the command has been managing a network of Coronavirus hotels, providing both isolation facilities and recovery services for infected people with mild symptoms. Its soldiers have also distributed food and supplies in hard-hit areas including communities that have had little contact with the military, such as Arab towns and ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods.

Morad Ammash, the head of the municipal council of the Arab town of Jisr al-Zarqa, said the command worked well with his community when it dealt with an outbreak in March.

They helped us with public information, managing the system, handing out food to the needy, he said. A good connection was formed.

Gordin said public trust in the military is perhaps his most important asset.

He said the army's experience in emergency management and its bottomless pool of manpower also are key strengths.

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