The Health Ministry said Saturday that Israel would likely soon close its borders to non-citizens amid fears of an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but later appeared to backtrack.
At the same time, South Korea protested to Israel over a decision to deny entry to some 200 people aboard a plane from Seoul.
A notice on the Health Ministry’s website posted Saturday said, “So far, checkpoints have not been closed to anyone who stayed in other places. However, checkpoints will most likely be closed soon to anyone who is not an Israeli resident.”
The sentence was later deleted with no explanation from both the Hebrew- and English-language versions of the website. Instead, the ministry’s guidelines read that while those who were in China within 14 days are being denied entry, “As of now, the borders have not been closed to those who were in other places.”
A ministry spokesperson could not be immediately reached for comment.
The apparent-backtrack came hours after Israel refused to allow passengers on an airliner from South Korea to enter the country, letting only those with Israeli citizenship deplane before sending the plane back.
Officials described the move as a case-specific one, coming hours after it emerged that a group of Korean tourists visiting Israel had been diagnosed with the deadly strain, and said it did not constitute a ban on Korean nationals.
Yonhap news agency cited Seoul’s Foreign Ministry as registering a strong protest with the Israeli government. The Foreign Ministry told the Israeli government that no excessive, unreasonable measures should be taken against South Korean nationals, according to the report.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Korean Air, the only carrier to fly a direct route between Seoul and Tel Aviv, no longer offered flights on the route as of Sunday morning.
A notice on the Korean Air website said that Israel was denying entry to nationals from Korea, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Singapore.
In a briefing Saturday evening, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov announced that Israelis returning from South Korea and Japan would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Such guidelines are already in effect for those returning from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.
The ministry’s moves to ban travelers or advise against visiting countries aside from China has reportedly raised hackles in the Foreign Ministry, which raised concerns over possible diplomatic fallout and a chilling of burgeoning tourism and business ties.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz called an emergency meeting at his ministry over the possible ramifications of the case of the South Koreans visitors.
In a statement, Katz said he’d instructed ministry officials “to support any strict decisions issued by the Health Ministry on preventing the entry of foreigners from various world countries who could pose a health risk to Israel’s population.”
“Our main consideration is the health of Israeli residents and preserving Israel’s ability to maintain and grow ties with countries around the world, as a state that adheres to strict rules and has not been touched by the coronavirus,” the statement added.
Some 200 students and teachers were ordered Saturday to self quarantine after it emerged that they had crossed paths with the group of Korean pilgrims earlier this month, and steps were being taken to identify others who may have come into the contact with them in Israel and the West Bank.
The revelation sparked intense worries of an outbreak here.
“This is really troubling … there’s a real danger that the virus will spread in Israel,” Shai Ashkenaiz, the head of the pediatricians union and an expert o contagious diseases, told the Ynet news site.
Israel has only had one confirmed case of the disease within its borders, a woman who had been on the Diamond Princess cruise that saw a massive outbreak of the virus and who has been kept under quarantine at a hospital along with 10 other Israelis who were on the cruise.
However, several global hotspots have begun to emerge as the virus spreads, from Iran to Italy, leading authorities to take stricter measures at their borders.
South Korea and China both reported a rise in new virus cases on Sunday, and the South Korean prime minister warned that the fast-spreading outbreak linked to a local church and a hospital in the country’s southeast had entered a “more grave stage.”
Some virus clusters have shown no direct link to travel to China. The death toll in Iran climbed to six, the highest outside China, and a dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown as authorities tested hundreds of people who came into contact with an estimated 79 confirmed cases there. Two people have died in Italy.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 113 of the 120 new cases were reported in the fourth-largest city of Daegu and surrounding areas. The agency said 70 of them are linked to a branch of the Shincheonji church in Daegu, which has become the biggest cluster of viral infections in the country, which now has a total of 556 cases.
Mainland China reported 648 new infections for a total of 76,936. The daily death toll fell slightly to 97. In all, 2,442 people have died in the country from COVID-19.
The number of new Chinese cases has seesawed daily but remained under 1,000 for the past four days. Several changes to how the infections are counted, however, have made it difficult to draw conclusions from the figures.
Globally, more than 78,000 people have been infected in 29 countries.
Agencies contributed to this report