|Residents hold placards as they demonstrate against a report that Israel may quarantine visitors from Korea at a military base in the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo in the Israeli-occupied West Bank Februar, Sunday. / Reuters-Yonhap|
Entry ban from virus halts flight operation
By Kang Seung-woo
More than 1,600 Koreans who traveled to Israel are finding it difficult to return home as regular flight operations between the two countries have been virtually suspended. The Middle Eastern country imposed an entry ban on Koreans in response to the recent surge in coronavirus cases in Korea.
The move by Tel Aviv came after 18 Koreans from a group who recently visited Israel on a religious pilgrimage from Feb. 8 to 15 tested positive for COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) upon their return home. On Monday, 12 more people from the group were confirmed to be infected with the virus.
According to the Korean Embassy in Israel, the government there imposed a ban on people who have visited Korea and Japan in the last 14 days from entering Israeli territory starting Monday, while issuing travel warnings for the two countries.
"Starting Monday morning, entry will be denied for any person who is not an Israeli resident or citizen and who stayed in South Korea and Japan in the 14 days before arrival in Israel," the health ministry there said on its website.
"Additionally, any individual who visited South Korea or Japan in the last 14 days must remain in a 14-day home quarantine counting from the latest date he or she left these places, in addition to travelers from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Thailand."
The measures resulted in the suspension of flights by Korean Air, which operates routes between Incheon and Tel Aviv four times a week. As most of the infected Korean travelers flew Korean Air, those that entered Israel before the ban was implemented have become stranded.
A Korean traveler, now in Israel, said in a radio interview that he and other people in his group are virtually quarantined in their hotel rooms, and have been forbidden from visiting restaurants.
"I think the Israeli government contacted our tour guide and we were instructed to stay in our rooms. Meals are brought to each room," the traveler said, adding their itinerary has been canceled.
In the wake of the entry ban, some Israeli media outlets reported Korean travelers would be quarantined at a military base, something the foreign ministry denied.
While some of the stranded Koreans have managed to book flights by way of third countries, many others remain. Later on Monday, the Korean Embassy in Israel said the Israeli government has arranged a charter flight to return the Koreans home.
The embassy issued an emergency notice for Korean tourists, telling those who want to return to Korea to go to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport by 11 a.m. Monday (local time), but it added that there would be another charter flight for those who cannot meet this deadline. As coronavirus infections have recently surged in Korea, a growing number of countries have started banning Korean visitors from entering their countries. Along with Israel, five other countries — Bahrain, Jordan, Kiribati, Samoa and American Samoa — have also slapped an entry ban on those traveling from Korea.
Brunei, Britain, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia and Uganda have tightened screening measures for travelers from Korea and other virus-hit countries, and ordered entrants to voluntarily notify the health authorities if they show any symptoms.
On Saturday, the United States raised its alert level for travel to Korea to Level 2 on a four-level scale, urging its citizens to exercise "increased caution" when traveling to the country, while Britain and Singapore have advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Korea's Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province, the regional epicenters for the latest spike in infections.