A homecoming for Israelis due to coronavirus

It is believed that thousands of Israelis are still stuck in South America.

Israelis stranded in India board a special El Al flight to return them to Israel amid the coronavirus outbreak. (photo credit: EL AL)
Israelis stranded in India board a special El Al flight to return them to Israel amid the coronavirus outbreak.
(photo credit: EL AL)
In times of danger, even when the threat is an unseen enemy like the novel coronavirus, the urge is to head for home. That’s why the Foreign Ministry operation to rescue stranded backpackers is so heartwarming. It is also very Israeli.
Four El Al flights on Friday brought home some 1,000 Israelis stranded in Peru and elsewhere in South America as country after country closed their borders and stopped air traffic. Parents shared photos of their children crowding into the airport and on the flights back to Tel Aviv. The young Israelis seemed in fine spirits and health, and their parents’ relief was increasingly more apparent with every Instagram photo and Facebook post they shared.
It was not a simple operation. Flights, sent by Amsalem Tours, first picked up some 550 Israelis from Cusco, in southeastern Peru, before heading to Lima to pick up the rest. Some of the backpackers’ journeys were delayed for a day.
The flights were finally authorized to fly from Cusco to Peru’s capital after Foreign Minister Israel Katz spoke with his counterpart, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, who gave the go-ahead after consulting with Peru’s transportation minister, the foreign minister said.
According to Channel 12 news, Peru had blocked the flights over concerns about having such a large group land in Lima, and fears that the Israelis could look for lodgings in the city, potentially increasing the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, there are still 23 Israelis in Lima who failed to get on the emergency evacuation flights for lack of space. It’s not clear yet how they can be extricated, although the Israeli Embassy is working on finding a solution. Another flight is planned this week to bring back Israelis from Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.
Several South American countries including Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Brazil have announced border closures and travel bans of various degrees and lengths to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is believed that thousands of Israelis are still stuck on the continent.
The Foreign Ministry on Thursday urged all Israelis who “want to come home” to do so immediately.
“Given the reductions and cancellation of flights worldwide, and the moves by countries to close their airspace and their borders because of the coronavirus outbreak, we are again calling on those Israelis abroad who want to come home to do so as soon as possible,” the ministry said in a statement. It might, however, already be too late for some, as air travel globally is grinding to a halt and some countries have implemented martial law. In addition, in some countries, the backpackers are in remote sites that are hard to access even on routine days.
A ministry spokesman reportedly said that Israelis abroad should not expect the country to provide free charter flights when all air traffic is halted. The flights from Peru, however, were funded by El Al, aware of the fact that most of the passengers were backpackers with limited economic means who had already incurred unexpected expenses.
Some 300 Israelis in Brazil flew home from Sao Paulo on Friday on a Dreamliner jet flight funded by Amsalem Tours. The Foreign Ministry last week also brought back 380 Israeli students from Moldova on two Israir Airlines flights.
El Al planes have also brought back 1,000 Israelis from India. Israel now is working with Indian authorities to permit further flights, as there are still another 2,000 Israelis trying to leave.
Israel’s Ambassador in Peru Asaf Ichilevich, working with a skeleton staff, called the situation “the most challenging” he had experienced in his 20-year diplomatic career.
The diplomats in this situation “are soldiers in suits,” he said, adding that he was working with diplomats from countries, including the US, Canada and Germany, to see if flights could be coordinated.
Helping and bringing home Israelis who need rescuing is part of the country’s ethos. We can be hopeful that once the immediate crisis is over, the government – if there is one – will realize the importance of having a fully funded and functional diplomatic corps and that it will do more to beef up its capabilities across the globe.