Israel to ban entry to foreigners coming from South Korea, Japan

Non-Israelis who visited the 2 Asian countries in past 14 days will be turned away due to virus fears; Israelis returning from Italy, Australia, Taiwan urged to check for symptoms

People in traditional Korean hanbok dresses wear face masks as they visit Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul on February 23, 2020 (Jung Yeon-je / AFP)
People in traditional Korean hanbok dresses wear face masks as they visit Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul on February 23, 2020 (Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

Starting Monday, Israel will ban all foreign nationals who have been to South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days from entering the country, over concerns they could spread the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Health Ministry said Sunday.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri was set to sign an order to that effect later in the day.

Israel is already denying entry to visitors from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Singapore, and is apparently the only country to have taken such drastic steps so far to contain the virus.

The Health Ministry also said any Israelis returning from Italy, Australia and Taiwan who develop symptoms of illness must be examined according to procedures detailed on its website.

The office of President Reuven Rivlin, who is currently on an official visit to Australia, subsequently said it was “not expected to change [the visit’s] planned schedule.” It added that the director-general of the President’s Residence was in touch with the Health Ministry director general on the subject “and we will update on any change that is necessary.”

A South Korean airliner that landed at Ben Gurion Airport Saturday evening was sent back to Seoul after the 12 Israelis on board were evacuated and quarantined. South Korea registered a strong protest with the Israeli government over the incident.

Separately, Israeli and Palestinian health authorities Saturday asked people who had been in close contact with a group of South Korean tourists recently to quarantine themselves.

Some 200 Israeli students and teachers were instructed to enter isolation due to being in several tourist sites at the same time as the group.

The request came after South Korea informed Israel that 18 members of the group who toured Israel and the West Bank for a week this month tested positive for the new virus. The tourists were diagnosed upon returning home.

Market workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant at a market in the southeastern city of Daegu, South Korea on February 23, 2020 as a preventive measure after the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak (YONHAP / AFP

It is not clear whether the Korean tourists were already infected while in Israel.

The Ynet news site reported that several hundred South Koreans currently in Israel will possibly be quarantined at Har Gilo Seminary just outside Jerusalem, a facility usually used by the military for courses and educational seminars. A final decision on the matter has not yet been made, the report said.

The Foreign Ministry said its director general, Yuval Rotem, would meet with South Korea’s ambassador to Israel later in the day to discuss developments.

The move to ban travelers or advise against visiting countries aside from China has reportedly raised hackles in the Foreign Ministry, which is concerned about the possible diplomatic fallout and a chilling of burgeoning tourism and business ties.

Rotem told Israeli diplomats in Asia in a phone call Sunday that the top priority was Israeli public health, but that the country would do everything to minimize harm to other countries in the process.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that Israel could soon close its borders to all non-citizens, but later appeared to backtrack. A notice on the Health Ministry’s website said, “Checkpoints will most likely be closed soon to anyone who is not an Israeli resident.”

On Friday, Israel said a passenger who was quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan was diagnosed with the virus after he was flown home with a group of 11 Israelis, making it the first case to be reported inside Israel. The others are in quarantine. Three other Israelis are being treated in Japan after contracting the virus on the cruise ship.

South Korea said Sunday it was raising its alert on the new coronavirus to the “highest level.”

A Korean airplane that arrived from South Korea, after landing at Ben Gurion International Airport on February 22, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

South Korea has seen a rapid surge in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days after a cluster of infections emerged from a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu last week.

The national toll of 556 cases is now the highest outside China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

“The COVID-19 incident faces a grave turning point. The next few days will be crucial,” President Moon Jae-in said Sunday following a government meeting on the virus.

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