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US: New rules ban soldiers from traveling to Israel

The men and women of the United States armed forces will not be able to travel, within the framework of their leaves, to countries in the area of ​​responsibility of the United States Central Command (AOR), which includes Israel, the learned the Times of Israel.

On September 8, 2021, exactly one week after Israel was officially transferred to CENTCOM’s AOR, the Command issued an update to its travel guidelines, signed by the Chief of Staff, Gen. Patrick D. Frank division. Revised Central Command Regulation 55-2 states that “Unofficial travel within USCENTCOM AOR is not permitted.”

According to the previous version of the document, dated June 9, 2020, unofficial travel – including leave – to AOR countries only required clearance from the first O-6 in the applicant’s chain of command. . An O-6 is a captain in the United States Navy and a colonel in other branches of the military. Permission was almost always granted.

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Under the new, more restrictive guidelines, service members have the ability to appeal and seek emergency clearance from their commanders, senior officers of the rank of general or admiral. However, it is highly unlikely that this will be allowed. Requests must be submitted 30 days in advance, a requirement incompatible with most emergency situations.

It is possible to provide a written justification for last minute requests. But even if the commander approves it, the CENTCOM Theater Travel Coordination Cell, usually civilian employees who don’t know the soldiers, can override that permission.

Senior IDF officers (in white) meet with senior US Army Central Command officials in Tampa, Florida on December 1, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the 2020 version, only travel to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria or Yemen was listed as “unauthorized”, as a precaution. Since the 2021 updates, countries allied with the United States, relatively safe and stable like the United Arab Emirates or Israel, are listed in the same way.

The restrictions don’t just affect visiting troops. They also apply to American reservists living or studying in Israel, who are on mission abroad and wish to return home and to their families. Currently, four reservist US military chaplains are based in Israel.

Although Update 55-2 was released shortly after Israel was moved into the CENTCOM AOR – Israel’s inclusion was among the three changes listed at the top of the document – ​​CENTCOM assures that the new regulations are related to COVID-19 and nothing else.

“The changes… to Central Command Regulation (CCR) 55-2, were implemented in direct response to Covid-19 related restrictions in our area of ​​responsibility,” says Lt. Col. Karen Roxberry, Chief of CENTCOM media operations, to The Times of Israel in an email.

“The Defense Department’s announcement of Israel’s realignment with US Central Command responsibility in September 2021 is purely coincidental,” Roxberry said, adding that the changes came directly from CENTCOM leadership.

COVID Matters

The COVID-19 rationale raises further questions. The CENTCOM AOR is far from being one of the main hot spots of the coronavirus, as it has been much less affected than Europe, the Asia-Pacific region or even North America.

According to New York Times and other sources, on the day the new regulation 55-2 was released, 15 countries — mostly in Europe and the Americas — had more active cases than Iran, a CENTCOM AOR country with the greater number of cases. Israel, the CENTCOM country with the second highest number of cases, was 26th on the list.

An Israeli citizen receives an injection of the COVID-19 vaccine, at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem, March 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The situation is similar today, eight months later. According to Johns Hopkins University, Israel is the top country in the CENTCOM AOR in terms of COVID cases in the past four weeks. It is number 24 on the list, far behind countries in the Western world and Asia.

However, other U.S. regional commands, including European Command and Indo-Pacific Command, have not issued similar travel restrictions in response to the pandemic. “EUCOM leaders have not issued any regulations in 2020 or 2021 regarding non-AOR travel,” said Chuck Prichard of EUCOM’s public affairs office.

Additionally, although the Middle East briefly became a COVID-19 hotspot a year ago, it has not been so for many months and is one of the least problematic regions in the world today. today. Still, there has been no update to travel restrictions.

Moreover, the measures are far from temporary and should not expire until 2026. CENTCOM regulations are normally reviewed every two years, and there are no plans to review travel guidelines, says Roxberry.

Finally, the 2020 version of 55-2 was released as the pandemic was in full swing. There were then more than 7 million active cases worldwide when it was published on June 9, without including strict limits on travel to the area.

US CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie (right) alongside Maj. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, Israel Defense Attaché to the US, after landing in Israel, March 2, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

For decades, Israel has been in EUCOM’s area of ​​responsibility in order to avoid possible tensions between CENTCOM and Arab and Muslim nations under its jurisdiction. In recent years, CENTCOM allies have developed relations with Israel, some informally, so these issues have largely faded away.

Five days before leaving office in January 2021, US President Donald Trump ordered CENTCOM to include Israel. Although partly a symbolic gesture, Israel’s inclusion in CENTCOM was intended to improve direct communications between the IDF and US troops in the region and, through the US, to other armies of the AOR.

CENTCOM’s AOR covers Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Yemen.

perfect conjunction

Rabbi Irving Elson, director of the Jewish Welfare Board, which certifies and approves military chaplain rabbis, says he is “convinced” that COVID is indeed one of the motives behind the restrictions.

Rabbi Irving Elson, director of the JWB Council of Jewish Chaplains, also director of the Armed Services and Veterans Services Committee of the CCC Association. (Credit: Courtesy JCCA)

“It’s not easy to understand this change,” admits Elson, who served as a chaplain in the Navy and Marine Corps for 35 years.

“I am convinced that CENTCOM does not act out of anti-Israeli sentiment, and certainly not out of anti-Semitism,” he said. “I’ve been around for a long time, and I think I’m pretty good at sensing when I’m dealing with anti-Israel, anti-Semitic action, and when it’s something else. It is clearly something else. »

He attributes these changes to a “perfect conjunction” of COVID, regional events and the very recent start of relations between CENTCOM and Israel.

“I think there is a learning curve,” he says. “CENTCOM is just getting to know Israel. »

The JWB Jewish Chaplains Board works with the CENTCOM chaplaincy to explain the need for Jewish soldiers and officers to travel to Israel. This process is somewhat delayed by the fact that a new CENTCOM chaplain took over last week and needs some time to settle in.

“We have to recognize that there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know that they know, and we have to work with them with that in mind,” Elson explains.

Birthright-Taglit on break

One of the most visible impacts of the CCR 55-2 update concerns the Birthright-Taglit program.

There are usually winter trips in this capacity to Israel every two years for Jewish cadets from military academies and students attending the reserve officer training corps from other schools. Due to COVID, the most recent trip was at the very beginning of 2020.

Participants celebrate the 15th anniversary of Taglit-Birthright Israel, in Tel Aviv, June 2015. (Courtesy)

According to Israel Outdoors, a provider responsible for organizing programs for cadets, no trip of this nature is currently planned.

The trips, designed to give young Jews (mostly Americans) a taste of Israeli history and culture in hopes of convincing them to get involved in Jewish life and pro-Israel causes, are available to everyone. young adult Jew aged 18 and over who has never been to Israel, or whose last trip to Israel was less than three months.

“Are there any soldiers who are annoyed at not being able to benefit from Birthright-Taglit? Yes there is. But we are studying the question, we will remedy it, ”promises Elson.

“When you think about everything that’s going on in the world, it’s not high on CENTCOM’s list of priorities. This is not THE subject. It’s up to us to make the Command Office aware of the issue. »

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this article.

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