Ben-Gurion Airport will completely close until the end of the month starting Monday at midnight. The cabinet approved the decision in a meeting on Sunday.
The push to impose further restrictions on travel to and from Israel comes against the backdrop of new revelations about the infectiousness and suspected increased lethality of novel coronavirus variants that have developed in several areas around the world.
Travelers will be prevented from entering or leaving the country except in cases approved by a special committee. The ban on entering Israel includes new immigrants making aliyah, marking the first time that immigration under the Law of Return has been halted in the history of the country. Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata opposed the move during the cabinet meeting.
“We are sealing our skies, except for limited exceptions, in order to prevent the entry of the virus mutations, and also to ensure that we progress quickly with our vaccination campaign... so that more Israelis are vaccinated soon,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during the meeting.
According to the outline approved by the government, no foreign planes will be allowed into the country except for cargo planes, firefighting planes and flights devoted to medical evacuation.
Moreover, the licenses of Israeli airlines have been temporarily suspended. No one will be allowed to leave the country except for receiving medical treatments, participating in legal proceedings or to attend the funeral of a relative. Other requests for humanitarian reasons will be examined and approved on an ad-hoc basis by the directors-general of the Health and Transportation ministries.
The closure of the skies is set to expire on January 31, when the currently reinforced lockdown is also scheduled to end. After the government’s decision, El Al Israel Airlines announced that it would allow its customers who have purchased tickets up to February 15 to annul them and get reimbursed, Israeli media reported.
Netanyahu stressed that in the coming week, Israel will inoculate million people, and he invited all those over the age of 60 who have not yet been vaccinated – about 20% of the relevant population – to do so immediately.
While the number of new cases in Israel has been decreasing for several days, patients in serious conditions and on ventilators, as well as daily deaths, remain high.
A low 2,394 people tested positive on Saturday – about 8% of those screened – but the number of tests administered was also significantly lower than the average, with only 30,832 tests performed, the Health Ministry reported on Sunday.
About 1,228 people are currently in serious condition, up from 1,171 on Saturday and 1,128 on Friday. Some 316 patients are on ventilators and the death toll stands at 4,361 – with 37 people having passed away from the virus since the previous update. Since the beginning of the month, 1,000 Israelis have died due to the pandemic.
The new virus variants are a probable factor for the continued severity of the situation, according to experts. This, despite the success of the vaccination campaign in the country, with over 2.5 million people who have received the first shot and almost a million who have also received the second – a world record.
British officials said that the COVID-19 variant identified in England last month could carry a higher risk of causing death, although data is limited. Until now, health officials have said there was no evidence that it was more lethal or caused a more serious illness.
While the British variant is already common among patients in Israel, with coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash reporting last week that between 30% and 40% of new cases present it, health officials worry about the possible spread of other mutations, including the one from South Africa.
According to the Health Ministry, some 27 cases of people infected with the South African variant have been identified in Israel. This mutation is considered especially worrisome because some experts are concerned that it might be somewhat resistant to the vaccine.
Also on Sunday, the first case of a new variant of COVID-19 that was recently discovered in the US was diagnosed in Israel, the ministry reported. The man reportedly came into Israel from Los Angeles and has since infected at least four people. The variant is considered responsible for the spike in coronavirus cases that occurred in California.
The cabinet also addressed the issue of law enforcement, especially in the ultra-Orthodox sector, where infection numbers as well as reported violations remain especially high.
“We are losing lives because of a politically-motivated lack of [coronavirus regulation] enforcement,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said during the meeting.
“The government and the Education Ministry aren’t exercising their legal authority to close and deny budgets to educational institutions that are open during the lockdown contrary to government guidelines,” he said. “I have asked the attorney-general to see what kind of legal means are available [to deal with] public leaders whose instructions contradict the guidelines laid out by the government.”
Netanyahu called on all citizens to respect the regulations, stating that most of the ultra-Orthodox do abide by the laws, but promising to act against those who don’t.
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman contributed to this report.