El Al flights were set to depart Thursday with hundreds of Israelis who have been stuck in Peru due to border closures enacted as a result of the coronavirus.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz said planes carrying some 550 Israelis would fly from Cusco, a city in southeastern Peru, for the capital Lima, where they would join other Israelis in the South American country on the flights back to Israel.
The planes were okayed to fly from Cusco to Lima after Katz spoke with his Peruvian counterpart Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, who gave the go-ahead after consulting with Peru’s transportation minister, the foreign minister said.
“With the help of God everyone will return home safely,” Katz wrote on Twitter.
Amsalem Tours, an Israeli travel agency that helped organize the flights from Cusco to Lima, said the first of four planes was wheels up at 7:30 a.m. local time and that the rest would take off in 30 minute intervals.
Peru had blocked the flights over concerns about having such a large group land in Lima and fears that the Israelis could look for lodgings in the city, potentially increasing the spread of the virus, according to Channel 12 news.
Footage aired Wednesday by Israeli television showed passengers huddled together outside the airport in Cusco, placing themselves at high risk of exposure to the virus.
The Israelis were ordered to split apart and find places to sleep at the airport as they waited for the flights to be approved, Channel 12 said.
נגיף קורונה | פרו: המטיילים הישראלים מתארגנים לקראת הגעת מטוסי אל על שיאספו אותם בחזרה ארצה
(צילום: אמסלם טורס) pic.twitter.com/9Rfhq0aezv
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) March 18, 2020
Thousands of Israelis are believed to be in South America, where several countries have announced border closures to combat the spread of coronavirus. Argentina and Peru both announced border closures Sunday, while Chile implemented one on Wednesday. A travel ban on foreigners took effect on Monday in Colombia, and Brazil has said travelers should be prepared for a ban to be put in place.
With airlines cutting flights across the board amid the drop in global travel due to the virus, the Foreign Ministry on Thursday urged all Israelis who “want to come home” to do so immediately.
“Given the reductions and cancellation of flights worldwide, and the moves by countries to close their airspace and their borders because of the coronavirus outbreak, we are again calling on those Israelis abroad who want to come home to do so as soon as possible,” the ministry said in a statement.
It also published on its website a list of countries (Hebrew) that fly to Israel with updates regarding whether such flights still exist.
A spokesman for the ministry said Israelis abroad should not expect the country to provide free charter flights if a decision is made to halt all air traffic.
The Foreign Ministry statement came after the Interior Ministry announced Wednesday that effective immediately, only citizens and those who base their lives in Israel will be allowed into the country.
Any Israelis returning to the country must quarantine for 14 days in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines.
As of Thursday, there have been 529 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel. No one in the country has died from the virus, but the Health Ministry said six people were in serious condition.