Adam Hoffman, Tel Aviv University
The global need to respond to the spread of the COVID-19 virus played out in distinctive ways in the MENA region. In addition to implementing public health measures such as quarantines, tests and lockdowns, some states in the region also chose to frame the coronavirus as a security threat and not simply as a public health issue. This framing of the COVID-19 pandemic is best understood through the lens of securitization theory. The strategic choice to frame the pandemic response in security terms may seem obvious amid national (and nationalist) efforts to stop the pandemic, especially in Middle Eastern regimes already highly focused on security. But the non-securitized responses to COVID-19 in many countries – including in the Middle East – show that securitization is a political choice by policy makers and not a “natural” state, as scholars of the Copenhagen School have argued.
The theoretical framework of securitization is associated in IR theory with the Copenhagen School of security studies and was originally developed by Ole Wæver. It essentially argues that security is a speech act: an issue becomes a threat whenever an actor declares it to be a matter of national security, a move which has distinctive political consequences. Security issues do not simply exist ‘out there’ as objective facts, but rather must be defined and articulated as threats by political actors. The effect of this process, defined by the Copenhagen School as securitization, is that by labeling something as “security,” an issue is dramatized as an issue of supreme priority. As Buzan, Wæver and De Wild argue, “the special nature of security threats justifies the use of extraordinary measures to handle them”[i] and the suspension of “normal politics” in dealing with that issue.[ii] Securitization thus means the elevation of an issue beyond the level of everyday politics, which justifies the use of emergency measures to deal with it.
Securitization theory has been applied before to the Middle East: some scholars have used it to examine the securitization of the Shi’a other in Gulf politics,[iii] attitudes towards the Palestinian minority in Israel,[iv] sectarian identities in the post-2011 regional order,[v] Saudi Arabia’s attempts to securitize Iran[vi] and the securitization of the Iranian nuclear project in Israel,[vii] among other issues. However, despite this existing engagement with securitization theory in IR scholarship on the Middle East, existing literature has paid less attention to global health issues as security threats. Such issues have already been securitized in other contexts: Margaret Chan, the former director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke of the Ebola epidemic as “a threat to national security well beyond the outbreak zones”[viii] and former U.S. President Barack Obama described the Ebola outbreak as “a growing threat to regional and global security.”[ix] This securitization of past pandemics has led to studies of the securitization of Ebola[x] and AIDS[xi] – though less in the context of Middle East politics.
The examples of Israel and Jordan help to illustrate how securitization theory can help in the understanding of state responses to COVID-19. These countries were not chosen for their similarity, but due to the fact that despite their many differences, in both countries the national response to COVID-19 has been securitized in similar ways. These are not the only examples in which states in the Middle East have used the military to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, of course: Oman, for example, has deployed the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) to check and control points against the movement of citizens and residents in all governorates of the Sultanate,[xii] and the Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency published a video which showed the preparations of the Egyptian Armed Forces for COVID-19, showing soldiers wearing chemical warfare suits and military units displaying disinfection gear.[xiii] A discussion of the securitization of COVID-19 in Israel and Jordan thus illustrates a wider pattern of MENA state policy behavior in response to the coronavirus crisis.
Israel’s response to the coronavirus
Israel responded to the coronavirus decisively and swiftly, and its responses have been praised by some observers as “right on target”[xiv] and as an example for “other nations in search of answers” of how to deal with the pandemic.[xv] In addition to implementing a variety of measures such as self-quarantine, limiting public gatherings and closing schools, universities and kindergartens, key actors in Israel also securitized the pandemic. Most importantly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel’s efforts to contain the coronavirus as being “a war with an invisible enemy, the virus.”[xvi] Similarly, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett stated that Israel is “in the middle of a war. It is no less significant than the previous Israeli wars, but it is very different,”[xvii] and referred to the pandemic as Israel’s “First Corona War.”[xviii] Bennett also explicitly securitized the coronavirus in an official policy document he published in late March titled A National Corona Plan for Israel. The plan stated that “a pandemic is different” from ordinary health issues, being “a combination of medicine and war [emphasis mine].” As a result of this war-like nature of the challenge, different actions are required: “in war, quick decisions must be taken, risks must be taken, and the safety measures must be lowered. The state of mind of war is very different from the state of mind of medicine.”[xix]
The securitization of COVID-19 by Israeli actors was not limited only to Netanyahu and Bennett: in a criticism of the Israeli government’s response to the epidemic, Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, claimed that “Israel is in all-out war with the coronavirus”, and argued that “It is time to stop being proud of our so called achievements, and manage the crisis not as though we are at war, but as if we were at all-out war.”[xx] In the same vein, Professor Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, argued that the corona crisis should be viewed as “a war that was forced on Israel. The situation has many similarities to a war employing chemical and biological agents.”[xxi] The fact that prominent voices outside of the Israeli government also securitized the coronavirus crisis can be seen as an example of what political scientists Oren Barak and Gabriel Sheffer term Israel’s “Security Network” in action: a highly informal but at the same time very potent network, made up of actors who are connected by informal, nonhierarchical ties and share common values and perceptions regarding Israel’s security.[xxii]
While scholars of securitization theory view securitization as a speech act and therefore focus on the rhetorical aspects of defining issues as matters of national security, Israel’s securitization of COVID-19 was also manifested in the actions undertaken by the Israeli government. According to Netanyahu, the new reality of trying to contain the coronavirus justifies the use of extraordinary measures, as Buzan, Wæver and De Wild argue happens in the process of securitization. Netanyahu stated that as part of Israel’s efforts to combat the epidemic, the government will “deploy against it measures we’ve only previously deployed against terrorists.”[xxiii] These measures included an unprecedented use of Israel’s various security and intelligence agencies: Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, uses surveillance technology to track citizens infected by the coronavirus.[xxiv] This was the first time that Shin Bet used its technological capabilities to openly track Israeli citizens. After the personal details of 10 coronavirus patients were lost in the government’s health system, Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite Special Forces unit, was activated to track them.[xxv] The IDF Intelligence Corps, including its Research Division and elite Unit 8200, were also called on to assist the Ministry of Health in collecting and analyzing intelligence related to the coronavirus.[xxvi] Finally, Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, was tasked by Netanyahu “to do everything and anything” to procure ventilators and other needed medical supplies from abroad for the country’s health system.[xxvii] These steps reflect not only Israel’s crisis mode response to the coronavirus, but also its securitized response to the global epidemic – using military units, intelligence agents and technologies usually used for fighting terrorism and collecting intelligence for the country’s national security needs.
Jordan’s response to the coronavirus
In mid-March, Jordan introduced some of the toughest anti-coronavirus measures in the world. These measures included an indefinite curfew, a one-year prison sentence to those who violate it by going outside, and the closing of all businesses in the Kingdom.[xxviii] In addition to these harsh measures, Jordan also securitized the coronavirus crisis, defining it as a war-like situation. Most notably, this was done by King Abdullah II in a widely viewed speech posted on Facebook.[xxix] In the speech, the King addressed Jordanians in a fatherly tone as “sons and daughters of a dear people” and warned them about the global danger posed by the coronavirus epidemic.[xxx] In discussing the danger posed by the virus, Abdullah used the metaphor of war by invoking the Battle of Karameh, which was marked in Jordan two days before, on March 21.[xxxi] By invoking the Battle of Karameh, King Abdullah called on Jordanians to show the same spirit of bravery, honor, and sacrifice as the Jordanian soldiers had done fifty years earlier. The King said that today, each and every Jordanian “is a soldier” in Jordan’s campaign against the epidemic. Importantly, the King delivered the speech in military uniform. This presentation has been used by the King in the past in times of crisis, such as after the killing of Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh by ISIS in February 2015. Therefore, the King’s messaging – both in content and form – sought to convey to Jordanians a sense of crisis and danger, shifting the public to a war-like state of mind.
The securitization of the coronavirus in Jordan was not done only by King Abdullah, but also by Jordan’s Health Minister Sa’ad Jaber. Jaber became the most well-known government official in Jordan to address the public on the coronavirus crisis. In his statements and media interviews, he often said that “Jordan today resists [the coronavirus] and will be victorious, God willing.”[xxxii] Jaber also promoted a hashtag campaign in his Twitter profile titled “Jordan resists” (#الأردن_يقاوم).[xxxiii] In Middle Eastern political discourse, the word “resists” is closely associated with Hamas and Hizbollah’s campaigns of violent resistance (muqawama) against Israel; that is, violent campaigns of popular struggle against an external enemy. This was therefore another attempt – this time, by Jordan’s top health official – to set a war-like mindset for Jordan’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.
At first glance, the securitized response to the COVID-19 crisis by both Israel and Jordan indicates a strong state which is able to quickly mobilize its security forces (and in the case of Israel, intelligence services), impose lockdowns and maintain domestic stability in the face of a global crisis. But this conclusion would be misleading: in Israel, while the involvement of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet is lauded by many and often presented by Netahyahu and Bennett in heroic terms, the coronavirus crisis exposed the unpreparedness of Israel’s health system to deal with the epidemic. As some Israelis noted on social media, had the country’s health system had enough ventilators and other medical equipment in the first place, Mossad would not have been tasked with procuring it in secret dealings from far-off countries. Thus, despite the advanced capabilities shown by the involvement of Israel’s various security services in response to the pandemic, the coronavirus exposed Israel’s limited state capacity in terms of the health system’s ability to prepare for and respond to the crisis.
In Jordan, meanwhile, the quick and decisive response to the crisis was done in order to prevent a mass outbreak of the pandemic, due to the government’s awareness of the lack of the necessary resources to deal with such a scenario. Jordan’s economy is already facing major challenges: in 2018, the Kingdom faced country-wide protests over a new income tax bill, and the country has around $1.76 billion in debt payments to make this year.[xxxiv] A mass outbreak of COVID-19 would almost certainly overburden the country’s health system and further exacerbate its economic problems. The Kingdom’s securitization of the coronavirus crisis and calls for resilience and resistance in the face of the epidemic therefore show a limited, rather than high, state capacity to deal with the virus.
Securitization theory argues that security threats do not simply exist as natural facts but are defined and articulated as such by political actors. A discussion of states’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic in the MENA region, focusing on Israel and Jordan, has shown that many governments in the region have defined the COVID-19 crisis not simply as a public health issue but as a security threat, often describing the state’s efforts to limit the spread of the virus as a war or military campaign akin to previous wars fought in the nation’s collective memory.
Scholars of securitization theory are wary of the political consequences of securitization, as the extraordinary means employed to deal with the security threat could lead to an erosion of democratic norms and debates. This concern is also relevant to Middle Eastern governments’ securitization of the coronavirus epidemic: in Israel, the surveillance powers given to the Shin Bet to track coronavirus carriers could be used for other purposes after the end of the pandemic. Although Shin Bet’s chief Nadav Argaman said that he understands the sensitivity of the issue and promised that the information collected using the service’s technological tools will not be kept in the Shin Bet pool after its delivery to the Health Ministry,[xxxv] there are no guarantees that the technology won’t be used again, and not only for security reasons. Thus, the extraordinary measures adopted by Israel to deal with the coronavirus crisis could significantly improve the state’s repressive capability – and the political consequences of the securitization of the pandemic could become a part of the state’s relationship with society long after the end of the COVID-19 crisis.
[i] Buzan, Barry, Ole Wæver, Ole Wæver, and Jaap De Wilde. Security: A new framework for analysis. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998: 21.
[ii] McDonald, Matt. “Securitization and the Construction of Security.” European journal of international relations 14, no. 4 (2008): 567; Williams, Michael C. “Words, images, enemies: Securitization and international politics.” International studies quarterly 47, no. 4 (2003): 516.
[v] Darwich, May, and Tamirace Fakhoury. “Casting the Other as an existential threat: The securitisation of sectarianism in the international relations of the Syria crisis.” Global Discourse 6, no. 4 (2016): 712-732.
[viii] “WHO Director-General addresses UN Security Council on Ebola”, World Health Organization, September 14, 2014. https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2014/security-council-ebola/en/ .
[ix] Nakamura, David. “Obama: Ebola is ‘growing threat to regional and global security’”, The Washington Post, September 25, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-ebola-is-growing-threat-to-regional-and-global-security/2014/09/25/e9a65d54-44c0-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html
[x] Burci, Gian Luca. “Ebola, the Security Council and the securitization of public health.” Questions of International Law 10 (2014): 27-39.; Enemark, Christian. “Ebola, disease-control, and the Security Council: from securitization to securing circulation.” Journal of Global Security Studies 2, no. 2 (2017): 137-149.
[xi] McInnes, Colin, and Simon Rushton. “HIV/AIDS and securitization theory.” European Journal of International Relations 19, no. 1 (2013): 115-138; Sjöstedt, Roxanna. “Health issues and securitization: The construction of HIV/AIDS as a US national security threat.” Securitization Theory, pp. 164-183. Routledge, 2010..
[xxxi] The battle was a military engagement between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian guerillas and the Jordanian Arab Army in March 21, 1968, in which the Palestinian guerillas and the Jordanian forces forced the Israeli forces to retreat and inflicted heavy casualties on the IDF. The battle’s legacy in Jordan shattered the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli army, and its outcome was embraced by the late King Hussein.
[xxxii] https://royanews.tv/news/210077; https://www.facebook.com/alordonalyoom/videos/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%86-%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%81-%D9%86%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%86_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%85-%D8%AE%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%83_%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%AA/704293393641979/ ; https://www.jo24.net/%D9%88%D8%B2%D9%8A%D9%80%D9%80%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%AD%D9%80%D9%80%D9%80%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%86-%D9%8A%D9%82%D9%80%D9%80%D9%80%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%88%D9%81-%D9%86%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%A5%D9%86-%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%80%D9%87