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Officials warn Israelis returning from UAE may spread virus

Government to crack down on violations of distancing rules at airport

Transportation, health ministries to look at ways of reducing excessive crowding of passengers as they arrive and depart

Screen capture from video showing crowding at Ben Gurion Airport, December 13, 2020. (Channel 12 news)
Screen capture from video showing crowding at Ben Gurion Airport, December 13, 2020. (Channel 12 news)

The transportation and health ministries will join forces to ensure that proper social distancing is maintained in the country’s main international airport, preventing passengers from crowding at check-in counters or in line for passport control.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein issued a joint statement Sunday saying they will establish a work group tasked with ensuring coronavirus social distancing protocols are observed at Ben Gurion Airport.

The move came after recent days have seen crowding in both the departure and arrival halls.

The group, headed by Transportation Ministry Director-General Ofer Malka and Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto, will advise on “the necessary steps to take at Ben Gurion Airport during the processing of passengers on departing and arriving flights, with the aim of ensuring strict observance of Health Ministry instructions throughout the terminal,” the statement said.

Video from Ben Gurion on Sunday showed hundreds of people waiting in line at check-in counters without social distancing, despite the efforts of airport staff tasked with ensuring that passengers keep to the rules.

Last week Channel 12 reported that large crowds of returning passengers were forming at passport control to reenter the country.

The Israel Airport Authority said in a statement Sunday that it was “working to ensure the flow of passengers in a safe way with the aim of not creating unusual loads.”

The authority said it is permitted to have passengers from up to eight flights every three hours in the terminal, “and we ask the passengers to keep to social distancing and to wear masks.”

The IAA said it had requested that the Israel Police send officers to the airport to assist the dozens of staff members trying to maintain order.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev visits the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, August 13, 2020. (Flash90)

Adding to worries at the airport, a senior Health Ministry official warned Sunday that travel to the United Arab Emirates could be a coronavirus “ticking time bomb.”

The official was referring to Israel’s decision to keep the UAE on its list of “green” countries with low infection rates, reportedly to avoid a diplomatic rift just months after establishing formal ties, while morbidity rises in the Gulf country.

“Dubai is our new Turkey,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site, referring to the large number of Israelis who returned from Turkey while carrying the virus, contributing to its spread in the country.

The Health Ministry expects that 224 COVID-19 patients will return from the UAE to Israel in December, Ynet reported, more than any other country (next are Turkey with an estimated 86 and the United States with 66).

Some 10,000 Israelis are currently in Dubai, the report said.

Dubai has rocketed to become a prime destination for Israelis following the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE in September and the ensuing travel agreements that have resulted in several scheduled flights every week connecting Tel Aviv with Dubai.

An Israeli man walks past Emirati staff after passport control upon arrival from Tel Aviv to the Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates, on November 26, 2020. (Karim SAHIB / AFP)

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the UAE has diagnosed 183,755 virus cases and there have been 609 deaths.

With their economies hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE and Israel are hoping for rapid dividends from the US-brokered normalization deal.

Direct flights between Israel and Dubai kicked off late last month with trips by UAE’s state-owned FlyDubai, followed by Israeli airlines.

Israel has been striving to halt a rise in infection numbers that came as the government rolled back a second national lockdown order to contain a second COVID-19 outbreak. With the number of daily virus cases increasing, health officials have warned a third wave, and another lockdown, could be coming.

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