'Israel doesn’t abandon its children,' says foreign minister

Israel dispatching plane to Colombia to bring back stranded backpackers

Foreign Ministry says some 150 Israelis will return on El Al flight from Bogota, as the South American country begins nearly 3 week-long mandatory confinement

An illustrative photo of an El Al plane taking off from Ben Gurion Airport on September 3, 2014. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of an El Al plane taking off from Ben Gurion Airport on September 3, 2014. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said an El Al plane will fly to Colombia to return some 150 Israeli backpackers stranded in the South American country.

The flight is set to depart for Bogota at 10 p.m. Wednesday, according to a ministry statement.

“The worried families of the backpackers in Colombia can smile,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said. “Israel doesn’t abandon its children.”

Citing the “uniqueness of the situation in Colombia,” the ministry said the government will cover the cost of the difference between the price of the tickets and the total cost of the flight.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Colombia has imposed a compulsory general confinement to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, which was set to begin Tuesday and last until April 13.

Katz announced over the weekend that his ministry would put together a “national emergency plan” to bring home Israelis stranded abroad by the pandemic, with international flights drying up and a growing list of countries closing their borders to foreigners.

Last week, the Foreign Ministry organized four flights from Lima, Peru, bringing home more than 1,000 Israelis on four El Al 787 Dreamliners. These flights — the longest ever by an Israeli airline — were free of charge for the backpackers, as the costs were footed by various sponsors.

An aerial view of empty roads in Bogota, Colombia, March 23, 2020. (Raul Arboleda/AFP)

About two dozen Israelis were unable to board those flights and Israeli officials have vowed to spare no effort to repatriate them as well.

Up to 10,000 Israelis are currently abroad and seek to return home, Israeli officials estimated this week, amid growing concerns that the widening coronavirus pandemic may make their return exceedingly difficult or even impossible as countries shut down their land and air borders.

Hundreds of Israelis backpackers aboard an El Al Dreamlimer taking them from Lima, Peru, to Tel Aviv, March 2020 (Sivan Farage)

The ministry has been working with El Al and two other Israeli airlines — Israir and Arkia — to launch several more “rescue missions” to various parts of the world, such Australia, Costa Rica, India (Mumbai and New Delhi), Italy, Croatia, Argentina and Brazil.

Raphael Ahren and AFP contributed to this report.

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