The coronavirus outbreak and maritime trade to and from Israel

Despite the severe impact of the coronavirus on the Israeli economy and the Israeli industry sector, Israeli ports continue to function reasonably well.

Shipment of eggs arrives at Ashdod Port, April 5, 2020 (photo credit: PAVEL TOLCHINSKI)
Shipment of eggs arrives at Ashdod Port, April 5, 2020
(photo credit: PAVEL TOLCHINSKI)
Israel's healthcare system is currently coping with the recent coronavirus outbreak, and the main entry point to the country, Ben-Gurion Airport, is mostly deserted – a clear illustration of the severe impairment suffered by global air transportation due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In contrast, in Israel's sea ports, which serve as a gateway for Israel's maritime trade, things are more or less proceeding as usual. In his attempt to calm the public from the onslaught on supermarket shelves, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on his Facebook page, "Most of the supply to the State of Israel comes by sea, and there is no reason to storm the supermarkets.”
Indeed, Israeli ports have so far been successful in maintaining the atmosphere of “business as usual” and continue loading and unloading cargo ships arriving and departing. Much of this is due to the solidarity of the port employees. Likewise, in past emergency situations such as the Yom Kippur War of 1973 or the Second Lebanon War of 2006, those employees didn’t hesitate to work tirelessly in order to keep Israel's maritime ports open, minimizing damage to the Israeli economy.
A historical study shows that epidemics and diseases influenced the entry into Israel via the sea ports in the past. During the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic in November 1918, the vast troop movements in and out the region hastily spread the pandemic, with “Jaffa… in all likelihood the first point of entry for the virus on the Levantine coast, carried by British ships from Alexandria or Port Said.”
An article published in the Hatsfira newspaper described a quarantine of 10 days on all ships from the Port of Alexandria, which was later expanded to include ships from all ports
Over the years and in order to prevent epidemics from spreading through the vessels’ crews to the onshore population, procedures have been established to place the ships in a quarantine, where vessels were ordered to dock outside the harbor for the expected incubation period of the disease. Either way, globalization and epidemics are well-known events in maritime history.
Despite the severe impact of the coronavirus on the Israeli economy and the Israeli industry sector, Israeli ports continue to function reasonably well. The regulations are that vessels that visited Chinese ports in the last 15 days before arriving to Israel cannot enter the country. All vessels are required to send a report to the Health Ministry before their arrival to any Israeli port, stating that all crew and passengers are healthy and that the vessel did not visit China in the last 15 days.
Without an approval from the Health Ministry, vessels cannot enter Israel. All Israeli port employees who board the vessel must carry personal protective equipment, and the vessel crews are required to remain in their cabins during operational activities carried out by the port employees on the vessel.
ABOUT 99% of Israel’s goods, cargo, raw material and foreign trade is transported by ships, primarily by global shipping companies, i.e. ships that are not registered in Israel and are not under Israeli control. Therefore, the economy of the State of Israel in eras of security emergencies is critically dependent on the proper functioning of its national shipping company and ports.
Every maritime nation maintains a policy to preserve its national shipping sector, for both economic and strategic reasons. This policy is manifested in a system of exemptions, preferential tax treatment, financial support and assistance, preference in the transportation of government and public cargo, assistance to shipyards and ship owners, training of maritime manpower, etc. Furthermore, most countries act to advance bilateral and multilateral shipping agreements with the goal of improving the terms of trade between countries and to prevent economic discrimination against their national shipping sector.
Each year, more than 6,000 merchant ships enter Israel's ports, but only 4% of them are Israeli-owned. The vast majority of ships are not sailing under an Israeli flag, but are foreign ships – in accordance with the period of globalization – and as long as an adequate port service is provided to them (even if their crew is kept in isolation), they will continue to visit Israeli ports.
But in a possible scenario where the threat to shipping and ports is not as global as the coronavirus, for instance, the firing of tens of thousands of missiles at Israeli ports from the Gaza Strip and/or from Lebanon, there is no guarantee that foreign ships will continue to enter Israeli ports. The current situation of Israeli shipping may lead to a problematic dependence on foreign commercial fleets (foreign shipping companies) and foreign seamen filling critical national tasks.
The need for an independent shipping sector in an emergency is self-evident and is the responsibility of leaders in the defense sector and those charged with maintaining the economy in an emergency. It is their job to define the need and how to meet it. Therefore, the issue of Israeli shipping should be placed higher on the government's agenda and policy makers should dedicate greater attention to this issue.
Failure to do this could mean that anyone at the helm of government will not be able to reassure Israeli citizens in a security emergency situation, as Prime Minister Netanyahu did in his March 11 statement. A decision should be made as soon as possible to adopt a long-term policy that will significantly improve the situation of both ships and maritime manpower, and ensure the existence of Israeli shipping.
Prof. Chorev Shaul is the head of the Haifa Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy Research at the University of Haifa. Capt. Alex Gerson is the head of the Vidra Shipping and Ports Division at the Center for Marine Policy and Strategy Research at the University of Haifa.