The United Arab Emirates has expressed its frustration with Israel after a top health official blamed a sharp rise in coronavirus cases on Israelis returning from vacations in Dubai, according to Hebrew media reports.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office apologized for the comments by Sharon Alroy-Preis after being contacted by Emirati officials, the reports by the Walla and Ynet news sites said Thursday.
Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s public health department, was said to have told hospital chiefs earlier this week that “in two weeks of peace [with the UAE] more people died than in 70 years of war.”
Israel and the UAE were never at war, and Channel 13, which reported the comments, noted the remark could have been made half-jokingly. The network said that from the beginning of December, 906 Israelis who returned from the UAE were diagnosed with coronavirus, leading to a total of 4,050 cases, including many cases of the more infectious UK variant.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have traveled to the UAE since Israel normalized ties with the Gulf state in September. Earlier this week, Israel opened its embassy in the UAE.
Israel on Monday night shuttered Ben Gurion Airport to nearly all flights until the end of January, amid fears over fast-spreading or vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants entering the country. The airport closure will remain in effect at least until this coming Sunday, when national lockdown measures are set to be eased, though the government is expected to extend both closures.
Alroy-Preis told the Knesset on Monday that the weeklong closure of Ben Gurion Airport would not be long enough.
“The six days that we have decided to close Ben Gurion Airport will not be enough. We will have to extend the closure by at least a few weeks to buy time for the vaccination campaign,” Alroy-Preis said.
Netanyahu said Thursday that he aims to extend the airport closure for at least two more weeks.
A British variant of the virus is circulating widely in Israel, accounting for nearly half of recent cases, according to health officials. Thirty cases of a South African strain have been found in the country, in addition to four cases of a California mutation. Officials fear the variants might prove resistant to the vaccines or mutate further to become resistant.
Widely believed to be far more infectious, the British government has also said there are preliminary indications the strain may also cause 30 percent higher mortality.
Israel’s daily virus caseload remains high, despite a frantic vaccination drive that has seen over 2.8 million Israelis receive the first shot, and 1.4 million get both doses — far outpacing the rest of the world per capita. The government has set a goal of vaccinating the entire adult eligible population over the age of 16 by the end of March.