Fewer than 1,500 Israelis stranded abroad, as hundreds return on special flights

As more countries close their airspace, Israeli backpackers make their way home with the help of Israeli and German diplomats, as well as the Honduran and Bolivian militaries

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli tourists boarding a Honduran military plane on their way back home, March 26, 2020. (courtesy Honduran Military)
Israeli tourists boarding a Honduran military plane on their way back home, March 26, 2020. (courtesy Honduran Military)

With the assistance of several foreign governments, Israeli diplomats on Thursday continued to bring home hundreds of Israeli backpackers who were stranded abroad, as more and more countries closed their airspace in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Only 1,000 to 1,500 Israelis who want to return have not yet been able to do so, according to Foreign Ministry estimates. Additional efforts are being made to get everyone home, ministry officials said, citing the principle of “mutual responsibility.”

“More than 600 Israelis came back from India, 200 students from Jordan, 150 Israelis from Central Europe and another 150 from Costa Rica,” said Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who earlier this week instructed his team to develop a “national emergency plan” to repatriate Israelis stuck abroad.

“We managed to get tourists out from all parts of Bolivia, and even those that were unable to board [last week’s] El Al flight from Peru will return to Israel soon, after they went on rescue flights organized by the German Foreign Ministry. Israeli citizens can be proud of their diplomats around the world.”

A group of 23 Israeli tourists took off Thursday from Lima en route to Frankfurt on a plane the German Foreign Ministry sent to the Latin American country to pick up German tourists stuck there. Since there are no flights from Germany to Israel, the Israelis will have to fly from Frankfurt to a third country from which airlines are still landing in Tel Aviv.

Berlin’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, Susanne Wainer-Rasum, hailed the flight as an “important symbol for the strength of [German-Israeli] cooperation in crisis times.”

A Lufthansa plan preparing to bring German and Israeli tourists from Lima to Frankfurt, March 26, 2020 (courtesy Israeli Embassy in Peru)

According to Israel’s ambassador to Peru, Asaf Ichilevich, 12 Israeli backpackers are still in various areas of the country. “We will make every effort to bring them home, too,” he said.

A group of seven Israeli tourists were flown from Honduras to Costa Rica by the Honduran army.

In addition to the aforementioned places, the Foreign Ministry, in cooperation with El Al and two other Israeli airlines — Arkia and Israir — in recent days has organized nearly a dozen flights for Israelis stranded in Croatia, Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Singapore, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Slovenia, Georgia, Moldavia and Australia.

More than 300 Israelis were flown home from India by a specially chartered Air India flight, organized by Amsalem Tours, a Tiberias-based travel agency that has been involved in the ministry’s efforts.

In cases where no special flights could be organized, the ministry found alternative ways to enable stranded Israelis to make their way home. On Thursday, for instance, 23 Israeli travelers made their way out of Bolivia, via Brazil, with the help of private and military planes.

Israeli tourists on board a Bolivian military plane en route to Brazil, March 26, 2020 (courtesy)

The tourists were picked up from five different locations in Bolivia and brought to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra on a private plane that was organized by the Israeli embassy in Brazil. From Santa Cruz, a Bolivian military plane took them to Sao Paulo, where they boarded a commercial flight to Ben Gurion Airport.

The Israelis were the first group of foreigners allowed to leave Bolivia since the country — which renewed diplomatic relations with Israel less than half a year ago — went into lockdown.

“It took tremendous creativity and thinking outside the box by our diplomats to execute this complex operation,” said Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem.

“The streets here have emptied out and there has been a sense of tension in the air. I feel that at this time, it is best to return to Israel,” said Yoav Leibowitz, a medical student from Netanya who been living in Budapest for the last seven months and flew home Thursday on a special Israir flight.

“Before I came to Hungary, I trained and worked as a paramedic. Once returning, immediately after the quarantine, I am committed and intend to enlist myself back into the Magen David Adom services and to provide assistance at this most difficult time.”

Israeli officials continue to urge all Israelis who are still abroad and want to come home to do so as long as it is still possible.

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