Rescue flights for Israelis stranded abroad on hold, could be cancelled

Transportation Ministry decision follows canceled cabinet meeting where ministers were slated to approve establishment of committee to decide who is eligible for flights back

File: Parked airplanes at Ben Gurion Airport, August 8, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
File: Parked airplanes at Ben Gurion Airport, August 8, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

The Transportation Ministry announced Friday that it had temporarily suspended plans to send out rescue flights for Israelis stranded abroad due to the ongoing closure of Ben Gurion Airport.

The decision followed the cancellation of Thursday’s cabinet meeting where ministers had been slated to approve the establishment of a committee that would decide which Israelis would be eligible to board rescue flights.

Hundreds of Israelis abroad who had been planning to return home over the weekend will have to wait until at least Sunday when the cabinet is now slated to reconvene to discuss the matter.

However, Channel 13 reported that there are legal issues with only allowing certain Israelis to board rescue flights while barring others, as the Health Ministry had hoped to do. Such a policy would require Knesset legislation and this would likely take weeks or months.

As a result, the rescue flight policy as a whole remains up in the air.

The report also said that the airport closure, initially imposed for a week, could last for several more weeks.

The government has been increasing its precautionary measures in recent weeks in order to prevent a widespread outbreak of the British and South African variants of the coronavirus.

An almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Among the rescue flights that had been scheduled to return to Israel on Friday was an Israir flight from Frankfurt, Germany carrying hundreds of passengers. It has been rescheduled for Sunday, but until the cabinet convenes in the afternoon of that day, its fate remains unclear.

“The situation is crazy. We’re given no information. The feeling is that everything being decided is political. They closed everything in one moment, and did not give us time to do a coronavirus test as requested,” Shira Winter, a passenger stranded in Frankfurt told Ynet.

On Monday night, Israel 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.

That directive was initially set to expire on Sunday along with the other tightened lockdown restrictions, but ministers were poised to extend them at the last minute.

The lockdown is currently set to end overnight Sunday-Monday. Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party has said it will not approve extending the lockdown until the bill on raising fines is passed into law. The party argues the measure is necessary as part of a general increase in enforcement of lockdown regulations to effectively curb the virus.

Coalition MKs watch the final moments of the 23rd Knesset tick away in the Knesset plenum on December 23, 2020. (Knesset spokesperson)

Should the Knesset fail to pass the legislation and a lockdown extension on Sunday, there will be a period during which there will be no restrictions at all until the cabinet can meet to order a new lockdown.

While the Health Ministry reportedly wants to add another week, ending the closure after the weekend to take advantage of two days when much of the country would not be at work anyway, some ministers prefer an extension of just a few days.

In addition, the Health Ministry is reportedly opposed to suggestions that some aspects of the lockdown be eased, in particular by reopening parts of the education system and certain commercial activities.

The lockdown, now in its third week, has not produced a significant drop in infection numbers. Thousands of Israelis are being diagnosed with the virus every day and the positive test rate has remained at around nine percent, compared with lows of around just 1% reached in previous lockdowns.

The infection numbers remain high despite Israel’s successful vaccination campaign. Israel leads the world by far per capita in inoculations, with over a quarter of the population having received its first shot.

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