Israeli backpackers were evacuated from remote points in Bolivia and Honduras with help from the local militaries in complex rescue missions to make their way home on Thursday as countries continued closing their borders amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Israeli Embassy in Brazil organized a private plane to evacuate 23 Israelis from five different locations to Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
There, a Bolivian Army plane flew the Israelis to São Paulo, Brazil, where they are expected to board commercial flights back to Israel.
This was “an extraordinary operation that proves the determination of the Foreign Ministry to help Israelis around the world,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said. “I instructed Foreign Ministry staff to do all they can to help Israelis return to Israel in this difficult time of the coronavirus crisis.”
“Today, we saw the ministry’s abilities and the importance of the diplomatic ties Israelis make around the world for each and every Israeli citizen,” he said. “This is the spirit of mutual responsibility that characterizes Israel.”
The Foreign Ministry coordinated the evacuation with the Brazilian and Bolivian governments. Israel renewed diplomatic ties with Bolivia in November.
Israel also helped tourists from Singapore, Hungary, Australia, Brazil and Canada leave Bolivia, and a German tourist joined the Israelis on the private plane to Santa Cruz in coordination with the German Foreign Ministry.
The Honduran Army flew seven Israelis to San Jose, Costa Rica, for a direct flight to Israel.
IDF representatives in Guatemala, who represent Israeli military industries in Honduras, coordinated the flight, along with ground travel to its capital, Tegucigalpa.
Katz said the government would not be able to help Israelis abroad as much as more borders close and flights are canceled in the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The window of opportunity to return to Israel is shrinking, as is the State of Israel’s ability to help Israelis who remain abroad during the coronavirus crisis,” he said, calling on all Israelis to make an effort to find their way back to Israel.
The Israeli Embassy in India helped evacuate 316 tourists to Israel on a special Air India flight in an operation that began last week. The tourists had to get to Delhi from other places in India in the middle of a total lockdown. Once they arrived in Delhi, the embassy staff and Chabad emissaries found places for them to sleep and get food in the days remaining until the flight.
Citing the “unique character of some of the tourists in India,” the Foreign Ministry said its staff also helped renew their passports and visas.
Once at the airport, all the restaurants and shops were closed due to the lockdown, and the ambassador came to hand out sandwiches and fruit to the Israelis.
A chartered El Al flight from Bogota evacuated nearly 70 Israelis from Colombia on Thursday morning as most flights were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Israeli Ambassador to Colombia Chris Cantor said he was “glad to successfully help all the Israelis who wanted to return to Israel to do so.”
El Al flight attendants checked the passengers’ temperatures at the entrance to the plane. At least one baby was onboard with her mother.
The passengers paid a regular ticket price, and the government covered additional costs.
At the beginning of the week, there were about 130 Israelis left in Colombia. About 50 of them found their own way out of the country, and 15 decided to stay.
Another 23 Israelis who were not able to get on a special flight to Israel last week left Peru on Thursday on a flight chartered by the German Foreign Ministry. There are another 12 Israeli tourists in Peru. The Foreign Ministry is working to get them back to Israel.
The Foreign Ministry also helped about 200 Israelis studying in Jordan to return. They entered Israel through the Jordan River crossing and were sent to quarantine hotels.
Israeli Ambassador to Australia Mark Sofer said Thursday morning the Foreign Ministry was considering sending another flight to evacuate more Israelis. He asked people interested in such a flight to email the consulate.
Another 200 Israelis were expected to return from Budapest on a special Arkia flight on Thursday. The Chabad-affiliated EMIH Hungarian-Jewish Association coordinated the flight with the Foreign Ministry. Most of the passengers are Israelis studying in Hungary and workers at a kosher slaughterhouse who commute between the countries.
Several foreign nationals stranded in Israel will be aboard the flight to Budapest en route to their homes in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Croatia.
Half of the 6,000 Israelis who asked the Foreign Ministry for help in recent weeks have already returned, including about 1,000 from India, 1,000 from Peru, hundreds from Australia, Brazil and Mexico and about 100 each from Nepal and Myanmar. More than 1,000 Israeli students returned from Eastern Europe.
The Foreign Ministry emphasized the “mutual responsibility and effort the State of Israel makes to help its sons and daughters return home at this time of the worldwide coronavirus crisis.”
On Tuesday, the first-ever direct commercial flight from Australia to Israel departed with about 230 Israelis aboard. The special flight came as Australia planned to close its borders to foreigners. The El Al flight sold out 15 minutes after it was announced.