Coronavirus: Israel races to rescue its citizens before airspace closes

Peru is still under martial law in response to the coronavirus threat. Recent border closures and a nationwide lockdown have left the 23 remaining Israelis unclear as to what lies ahead for them.

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)
The Foreign Ministry is racing the clock to bring Israelis home before countries close their airspaces in an effort to halt the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Due to the world-wide closures that are occurring at an ever increasing pace, we are in the middle of a national emergency when it comes to bringing Israelis home,” Foreign Ministry Israel Katz said.
“I urge all Israelis traveling abroad to return to Israel as soon as possible,” he said. It’s estimated that there are still thousands of Israelis with no clear way to return.
Katz said a national emergency plan was needed for their return and has told his ministry to prepare to execute such a plan. Embassies and consulates have organized data with regard to the number of Israelis who want to return.
The ministry is also helping organize commercial flights through El Al, IsrAir and Arkia. Katz said he is working with governments abroad to obtain the necessary permits.
In some cases, the ministry needs to bring in planes to countries that no longer authorize commercial flights. In areas where there is land closure, the ministry has to help Israelis reach the airports.
On Friday, four El Al flights brought 1,100 post-army Israeli travelers home from Peru, but there were not enough seats and 23 people were left behind.
Ambassador Asaf Ichilevich said that there are other Israelis as well who need to be rescued, specifically those in Iquitos, which can only be accessed by air or by river.
Peru is 60 times as large as Israel with many remote areas, he said. Israelis there had been hiking the Amazon forest and had only learned of the coronavirus emergency when they came out. “It is quite disconnected from civilization,” Ichilevich explained. “We know we have to find a solution to help these people go out,” he said.
The small staff in his embassy of three, plus some seven local employees had worked even on Shabbat since they felt that their efforts were literally a matter of life and death, he said.
“I am working closely with other embassies trying to figure out solutions with the US and the Canadians,” he said. They are brainstorming rescue efforts together, both for Israelis and other foreigners in Peru, Ichilevich said.
He is also working with the Europeans, including the Germans. The hope is to get the Israelis on flights to other countries that might be organizing to bring in their citizens, particularly the Germans. It is the most challenging situation he has experienced in his 20 years of diplomacy, Ichilevich said.
The diplomats, in this situation, he said, “are soldiers in suits.”
Ichilevich added that Foreign Ministry budget cuts over the last years made it more difficult to operate now, even with the tremendous backup support from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
In India, two El Al Dreamliners originally intended to carry cargo left  Mumbai for Israel on Saturday night with 550 passengers. But there are many more Israelis still stranded in the country.
Israel’s Ambassador to Colombia Chris Cantor tweeted late on Friday night that Israelis in the northern South American country should return home before a nationwide quarantine in Columbia goes into effect at midnight on Sunday.
"From Wednesday, March 24 at midnight until April 13, home isolation will be enforced throughout Colombia," he said. "We reiterate our recommendation for Israelis to return to Israel as soon as possible via commercial international flights still departing from Bogota."
The embassy further said that while the capital Bogota began a four-day quarantine on Friday, the airport is remaining open and Israelis will be allowed to travel as long as they present a valid passport and flight ticket.
In Brazil, 300 Israelis left on a flight home from Sao Paulo on Friday. The passengers were taken on a LATAM 787 Dreamliner jet funded by Amsalem Tours. The Foreign Ministry last week also returned 380 Israeli students from Moldova on two IsrAir Airline flights.