IDF chief calls off US visit out of coronavirus fears

All civil servants banned from traveling abroad amid fresh broad restrictions from Health Ministry as Israel seeks to contain spread of COVID-19

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, right, at a ceremony at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 24, 2019. (IDF)
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, left, and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, right, at a ceremony at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, November 24, 2019. (IDF)

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday announced that a planned visit by army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi to the United States next week will be postponed in light of concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The move came as the Civil Service Commission banned all work trips abroad for civil servants.

The military said the decision was made in consultation with the Health Ministry and in light of its recommendation to avoid all unnecessary travel abroad.

The IDF did not specify a new date for the visit.

On Tuesday, the army announced that a senior general was under quarantine after visiting Italy.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Health Ministry released a fresh round of restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the virus, sending arrivals from five Western European nations into immediate quarantine and limiting mass gatherings throughout the country.

All Israelis returning from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland were instructed to enter self-quarantine for a period of 14 days following their return, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at a Health Ministry press conference alongside Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and other top officials.

Several people aboard a plane set to take off to Germany got off the plane after the directives, which would have forced them into quarantine, were announced.

In total, some 70,000 Israelis are thought to be under home quarantine under the new rules.

Netanyahu advised Israelis to avoid personal contact, including shaking hands.

Gatherings of over 5,000 people were also banned, requiring the cancellation of sports games, Purim parades, concerts and other large public events.

Thousands of runners take part in the 2019 international Jerusalem Marathon, March 15, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In addition, anyone who was abroad over the last two weeks was banned from any gathering of 100 people or more.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Ministry of Health in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu told the press conference that the virus was “a global epidemic,” possibly “one of the most dangerous in the past century.”

But he insisted that Israel “is in the best state of all nations” in containing the disease, which has so far been diagnosed in 15 Israelis and has sent thousands into quarantine.

“We are in control of the situation, thanks to the great caution we have adopted,” he said. “We have been forced to take very severe steps to slow the spread of the virus in Israel and that is what has happened. We have ordered quarantines and mass checkups that many other countries haven’t done.”

Workers disinfect a shop in Or Yehuda, central Israel, after a man who works at the shop and returned from Italy tested positive for the coronavirus, February 28, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, previously banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In a statement last month, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad. Israel was the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 93,000 worldwide and claimed over 3,200 lives, almost all of them in China.

The Health Ministry has faced criticism for its extreme measures, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country. Ministry officials have said they prefer to take a strict line than be sorry later.

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