Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on Israeli citizens in Ukraine to leave the country immediately, following a second meeting held with top security and diplomatic officials on Saturday due to the growing fears of an imminent Russian invasion.
There were around 4,500 Israelis registered with the Israeli embassy in Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry told the Times of Israel. The ministry estimated that there are between 10,000-15,000 Israelis in the country. The Foreign Ministry also further raised its travel warnings to the area.
“It was agreed to raise the travel warning for the area, along with calling on Israeli citizens to immediately leave,” Bennett’s spokesperson said in a statement.
The statement added that “an augmentation of civil flights on the Israel-Ukraine route will be examined.” The Foreign Ministry said calls were being made to various airlines for them to assist with evacuating Israeli citizens from Ukraine.
It was the second meeting on Saturday between Bennett and top officials on “the tensions between Russia and Ukraine,” his spokesperson said.
Senior officials in the meeting included Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar.
Also Saturday, Channel 12 reported that Bennett instructed government ministers not to publicly weigh in on Russia’s amassing of troops on the Ukraine border. The premier reportedly told ministers not to offer their opinions on the matter and to limit any public comments on the potential evacuation of Israelis from Ukraine. The report didn’t give a reason for the order but noted Jerusalem’s sensitive ties with Moscow vis-à-vis Russian ally Syria, where Israel has been carrying out strikes on Iranian-linked targets.
Earlier Saturday, the office of the prime minister, an observant Jew, said the first meeting on the Jewish day of rest was held “to expedite preparations to evacuate Israelis from the country.”
Gantz said Saturday that he has instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the possibility of helping evacuate Israelis from Ukraine.
His office said any IDF assistance would “depend on the scenarios and assessments of the situation.”
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said Israel must also begin readying plans for the “emergency immigration” of Jews from Ukraine in case of a Russian invasion.
“Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. If the Jewish community in Ukraine encounters hardship as a result of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, we must offer them an immediate solution of emergency immigration to Israel, now,” Shai said on Twitter.
The UK Jewish News reported Friday that Jewish charities were readying plans to evacuate Ukrainian Jews in case war breaks out.
According to a newspaper report last month, some 75,000 people living in eastern Ukraine are believed eligible for Israeli citizenship.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry has said it has begun working in an emergency capacity. Though embassy staff’s families and diplomats’ families are being evacuated for their safety, the embassy itself will continue to operate and will even be reinforced with additional staff from Israel to boost consular services for Israelis wishing to leave the country.
The Foreign Ministry issued a new “stricter” travel warning for Ukraine on Saturday, urging Israelis currently in the country to leave “as soon as possible.” Israelis planning on traveling to Ukraine should cancel their trips, the ministry added.
The Foreign Ministry statement, which cited the “continued tension and fear of escalation” in Ukraine, did not name Russia or cite the prospect of a Russian invasion.
The US picked up intelligence that Russia is looking at Wednesday as a target date for an invasion, according to a US official familiar with the findings. The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so only on condition of anonymity, would not say how definitive the intelligence was.
But according to a Ha’aretz report later Saturday, the Biden administration informed Israel that Russia could invade Ukraine in the next few days and possibly as early as Tuesday.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.
Agencies contributed to this report.