Residents of the Har Gilo settlement on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem held a demonstration Sunday after reports emerged that health authorities planned to quarantine in their community some 200 South Korean nationals suspected of carrying the coronavirus.
Israel has scrambled to take containment measures after over the weekend South Korea reported that a number of its nationals who recently traveled to the Jewish state had tested positive for the disease.
On Sunday, protesters blocked roads outside the settlement and burned tires. Some held posters reading, “Isolate the coronavirus, not the community.”
In a letter to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, residents demanded he “cancel this dangerous and unreasonable decision.”
“The more the disease spreads, by your actions you will be responsible for endangering the residents of Gush Etzion and Jerusalem,” they wrote, referring to the large bloc of West Bank settlements lying to the south of the capital.
Earlier on Sunday, the Ynet news site reported that defense officials had decided to send 200 South Koreans, mostly tourists, who are in the country to the Har Gilo military academy. Located in the heart of the settlement, the facility is usually used by the military for training courses and educational seminars. The measure still requires the approval of senior government officials.
Head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council Shlomo Ne’eman said in a statement that the council only “found out by chance” about the plan to house South Koreans in Har Gilo.
“There is no measure according to which this makes sense,” he said. “It can’t be that the decision was made behind the backs of the local authorities.”
“The Kirya in Tel Aviv is also a military site, so why don’t they have the quarantine facilities there?” he asked sardonically, referring to the IDF’s main headquarters.
Ne’eman said the council was demanding that the decision be frozen immediately and discussions held with local authorities.
Har Gilo residents also filed a High Court of Justice petition against the plan, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
The Har Gilo quarantine plan was proposed as an alternative to immediately expelling all South Koreans from the country, a move that would likely have diplomatic consequences with Seoul, Ynet reported.
However, by Sunday afternoon, Channel 12 television news reported, without providing sources or details, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had instructed that all South Koreans in Israel be immediately flown out of the country.
Diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Seoul have already become strained over the coronavirus scare.
A South Korean airliner that landed at Ben Gurion Airport Saturday evening was sent back to Seoul with its passengers, after the 12 Israelis on board were evacuated and quarantined. South Korea registered a strong protest with the Israeli government over the incident.
Earlier, South Korea informed Israel that 18 members of a 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.
As a result, Israeli and Palestinian health authorities Saturday asked people who had recently been in close contact with the group of tourists 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.
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.
South Korea said Sunday it was raising its alert on the new coronavirus to the “highest level.”
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, 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 Foreign Ministry on Monday also extended a travel advisory for Israelis to South Korea and Japan.
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.
The coronavirus, known officially as COVID-19, began in China in December. Since then it has killed over 2,400 people in that country and tens of thousands have become infected.
Agencies contributed this report.