Coronavirus crisisIsraeli envoy: 'Helping citizens in need, that's what we do'

As skies close, Israel scrambles to get thousands of stranded backpackers home

Citing ‘mutual responsibility,’ officials vow to leave no one behind, organizing flights to four corners of world; fume at those who want to take advantage of the system

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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

Up to 10,000 Israelis are currently abroad and want to come home, Israeli officials estimated this week, amid growing concerns that the widening coronavirus pandemic may make their return exceedingly difficult or even impossible.

Vowing to make every possible effort not to leave anyone behind, the government is currently working on organizing about a dozen flights to various destinations across the globe. At the same time, diplomats are warning tourists that more and more countries are rapidly closing their airspace.

Trying to repatriate Israelis has become the Foreign Ministry’s main mission, taking up the lion’s share of its already-scarce resources.

The challenge comes at a precarious time for the ministry: Dozens of senior ministry staff, including director-general Yuval Rotem, a number of deputy directors-general, the entire cadet course of future diplomats, as well as Consul-General to New York Dani Dayan, are currently in self-quarantine because they were exposed to the coronavirus. In addition, at least three diplomats — two in Germany and one in Spain — have been infected.

Despite the hardship, with the spread of the virus, a ministry that in recent years often complained about being neglected, sidelined and underfunded, has suddenly found new sense of purpose.

“We’re working constantly around the clock with our heads and hearts,” said Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, who said he was feeling well despite having contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, last week. “We’re willing to help people who desperately need it. At the end of the day, we’re a foreign service, and helping Israeli citizens in need, that’s what we do.”

On Friday, for instance, Israeli diplomats in India managed to get a group of sixty backpackers in Kasol, in the country’s north, onto buses en route to the capital, New Delhi, where they caught flights home.

A group of Israeli backpackers who were stranded in northern India but managed to get back home with the help of the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, March 2020 (Yogi Makasol)

Also last week, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor got stuck in Munich, where he was giving lectures to German students, without his medicine. In a matter of hours, and without much media fanfare, Issacharoff and Israel’s consul-general in the city, Sandra Simovich, managed to get him everything he needed, including an easyjet flight to Tel Aviv the next day.

“We’re trying to bring every single person home,” said Lior Haiat, the ministry’s spokesperson, who is working from home after coming in contact with two people who were infected with the coronavirus.

“There is no other foreign ministry in the world that takes care of its stranded citizens like we do,” he said. “We see it as our professional duty and personal responsibility to do whatever we can to make sure no one gets left behind.”

Last week, the 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 stranded backpackers, as the costs were footed by various sponsors.

About two dozen Israel were unable to board those flights; Israeli officials vow to spare no effort to repatriate them as well.

Israeli travelers at the airport in the Peruvian city of Cusco, March 18, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

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. But these are commercial flights that the passengers must pay for themselves.

Other countries have launched similar efforts to get their citizens back home, Haiat acknowledged, insisting, however, that none was making greater efforts to locate and assist every single citizen who finds himself abroad and needs help.

“It has to do with arvut hadadit,” he explained, using a Hebrew term that roughly translates as solidarity or communal responsibility. “It’s a feeling that all of us are in this together, that we’re one extended family. We help other Israelis just like we would help a cousin or a brother.”

Nearly all stranded backpackers who have contacted the Foreign Ministry with the request for help have noted their military service, Haiat added. “It was as if they want to say, ‘I served my country, now it’s time the country pays me back.'”

That sentiment may be legitimate, but Haiat stressed that ultimately it is every traveler’s own personal responsibility to make sure he or she gets home safely. “We’ve been urging people for weeks to come home as soon as possible, before the airways close. Many people have done that, but unfortunately some others have not.”

Therefore, Israeli ambassadors from various countries on Sunday posted a short video urging backpackers to immediately look for ways to travel back to Israel, warning that more and more countries are closing their airspace, prompting airlines to cease operating routes that could leave Israeli tourists stranded.

“Take careful heed to yourselves,” Joel Lion, Israel’s envoy in Kyiv, said in the clip, quoting the Biblical dictum about the need to protect one’s health.

“Please use the windows of opportunity that are still open, purchase a ticket and fly to Israel as soon as possible,” added Alon Lavi, the consul-general in Sao Paulo.

Via Turkey, the US and Ethiopia it was still possible to reach Ben-Gurion Airport, Yossi Shelley, the ambassador to Brazil, says, apparently unaware that a few hours after the video went online Turkish Airways announced that it will stop flying from Istanbul to Tel Aviv on Friday.

In private conversations, sources in the Foreign Ministry expressed some frustration at the fact that a handful of Israeli tourists planned to take advantage of the government’s commitment to bring them all home.

“We’ve seen people write things in WhatsApp groups like, ‘If we wait until the airspace closes, they will bring us home for free,’” one official said. “But they’re wrong. Currently, no other free flights are planned. And soon we may not be able to bring them home, even if we wanted to.”

The urgency has led Foreign Minister Israel Katz to develop a “national emergency plan” to repatriate Israelis stranded abroad.

“According to the plan, Israeli diplomatic missions around the world will map concentrations of Israelis wishing to return home. The [Foreign Ministry’s] Situation Room will monitor the situation around the clock and will establish a center to monitor requests of Israelis stranded abroad,” the ministry said in a statement issued Saturday.

Also on Saturday, the cabinet accepted Katz’s request to have the Foreign Ministry work at 50 percent capacity, as opposed to most other ministries, which have been ordered to reduce their staff to 30% in a bid to promote social distancing.

“The cabinet’s decision demonstrates the State of Israel’s need for a strong and functioning Foreign Ministry in these times of the corona crisis,” Katz said.

“The principle of mutual responsibility will continue to lead us until all Israelis return home,” he said, calling on all Israelis to return home as soon as possible.

“There are still commercial flights available from most countries, and it is possible to return,” he said.

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