Some 330 Israelis landed at Ben Gurion International Airport on Monday after fleeing the devastating coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy.
The evacuees, mostly students, boarded a plane from Israeli airline Israir in Milan, one of the world’s hardest-hit regions. Airline staff referred to the emergency operation as a “rescue flight.”
The passengers were required to wear face masks for the entire flight, and were served by flight attendants dressed in full-body protective gear, Channel 13 reported.
“It’s really sad to me how the situation here in Milan has deteriorated,” said Oshra Tzimmerman, who moved to Milan two months ago to study interior design.
Two weeks after she arrived, the coronavirus outbreak began in the city. “People here are getting infected and dying in huge numbers. People are leaving and disappearing at a crazy pace,” she said.
Tzimmerman had been isolated at home for about a month before the evacuation.
“But I’m really happy now that I’m going home to a safe place,” she said.
The airport was empty of nearly all passengers besides the Israelis, although there was a heavy police presence.
Gabriella Motro, one of the Israelis on the flight, said she had been stopped and questioned by police enforcing quarantine orders three times on her way to the airport.
The evacuees were subjected to a battery of tests for illness before boarding.
Eliel Mamrod, a 17-year-old who moved to Milan three years ago to study ballet, said the city was “frozen.”
“We’re a little stressed but staying optimistic,” she said before the flight.
The flight crew donned protective gear, including face masks, suits, eye protection and gloves about an hour before the empty plane touched down in Milan.
Ben Gurion airport’s Terminal 1 was opened for the passengers, who landed and were swiftly taken to quarantine at a hotel.
The flight was organized by health officials, Israir, the Foreign Ministry, the Airport Authority and others. MK Ahmad Tibi initiated the operation, the report said.
Israir said it was preparing another evacuation flight from Rome.
Italy has had more than 6,000 fatalities from the virus, more than any other country. Inside Italy, the epicenter of COVID-19 has been the Lombardy region, whose capital is Milan.
The flight was one of several in recent days to return Israelis stranded abroad.
The Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said an El Al plane will fly to Colombia to return some 150 Israeli backpackers stranded in the South American country.
Last week, the Foreign Ministry organized four flights from Lima, Peru, bringing home more than 1,000 Israelis on four El Al 787 Dreamliners. These flights — the longest ever by an Israeli airline — were free of charge for the backpackers, as the costs were footed by various sponsors.
About two dozen Israelis were unable to board those flights and Israeli officials have vowed to spare no effort to repatriate them as well.
Up to 10,000 Israelis are currently abroad and seek to return home, Israeli officials estimated this week, amid growing concerns that the widening coronavirus pandemic may make their return exceedingly difficult or even impossible as countries shut down their land and air borders.
The ministry has been working with El Al, Israir and Israeli airline Arkia to launch several more “rescue missions” to various parts of the world, such Australia, Costa Rica, India (Mumbai and New Delhi), Italy, Croatia, Argentina and Brazil.