Seoul protests Israel’s turning back plane; 18 Koreans have virus after visit

12 Border Police officers sent to quarantine Sunday morning after contact with tourist group, joining some 200 students and teachers told to enter isolation over infection fears

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

South Korea registered a strong protest with the Israeli government Saturday night after a South Korean airliner was turned back from Ben Gurion Airport with most of its passengers due to fears over the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The decision to block the entry of foreigners on the plane was announced some two hours before it landed in Israel Saturday evening. It came in light of the burgeoning rate of infection in the East Asian nation and the news that a group of South Korean pilgrims who visited Israel in recent days had been diagnosed with the virus, spiking fears of infection in the Jewish state and sending hundreds of people who had been in contact with the tourists into quarantine.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday morning that the number of pilgrims diagnosed with the virus since returning from Israel had risen from nine to 18.

Twelve Israelis on board the Korean Air plane were evacuated and quarantined Saturday night as the jet was held on the tarmac away from the terminal. It was then sent back to Seoul with the rest of the passengers, including some 130 South Koreans, according to a report in the country’s Yonhap news agency.

Staff prepare to receive Israelis on a Korean Air plane that landed in Israel, with some 200 other passengers to be refused entry to the country over virus fears (Magen David Adom)

Yonhap cited Seoul’s Foreign Ministry as registering a strong protest with the Israeli government. The Foreign Ministry told Jerusalem that no excessive, unreasonable measures should be taken against South Korean nationals, according to the report.

It noted that after learning of Israel’s intention to block passengers from entering, South Korea had contacted the Israeli government and asked it to reconsider but Jerusalem refused.

According to Yonhap, Seoul expressed “regret” and demanded that there be no further such incidents.

Israel’s Health Ministry said Israel would ban all foreign citizens who’ve been to South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days from entering the country, starting Monday.

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 Ynet new site reported that several hundred South Koreans currently in Israel will possibly be quarantined at Har Gilo Seminary in 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 move to ban travelers or advise against visiting countries aside from China has reportedly raised hackles in the Foreign Ministry, which raised concerns over 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.

Authorities in Seoul said Sunday the number of infections in the country had jumped to 556 — the second-highest outside China, apart from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. Four of the ill had died. The country raised its alert level on the coronavirus to the “highest.”

South Korean medical workers wearing protective gear transfer a suspected coronavirus patient (C) to another hospital from Daenam Hospital where a total of 16 infections have now been identified with the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Cheongdo county near the southeastern city of Daegu on February 21, 2020 (YONHAP / AFP)

The group of 77 Koreans were in Israel from February 8 to 15. It is not known whether the sick individuals contracted the pathogen before or after returning from Israel.

Regardless, Israeli authorities were taking no chances, announcing Saturday night that some 200 students and teachers that had visited various nature and archaeological sites at the same time as the group had been instructed to self-quarantine.

The Education Ministry announced Saturday night that students from Afula, Haifa and Beersheba had been ordered to remain in isolation at their homes for a period ending 14 days after their interaction with the tourists.

On Sunday 12 Border Police officers who were with the tourists as they visited the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron were also sent to quarantine.

Steps were being taken to identify others who may have come into the contact with the group in Israel and the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority called on anyone who had come into contact with the South Korean tourists to enter quarantine. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh instructed all West Bank sites visited by the tourists closed until further notice, and their employees screened.

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

The sentence was later deleted with no explanation.

In a briefing Saturday evening, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov announced that Israelis returning from South Korea and Japan would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Such guidelines are already in effect for those returning from China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau.

Health Ministry General Manager Moshe Bar Siman Tov a press conference about the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, February 22, 2020 (Flash90)

Foreign Minister Israel Katz called an emergency meeting at his ministry over the possible ramifications of the case of the South Koreans visitors.

In a statement, Katz said he’d instructed ministry officials “to support any strict decisions issued by the Health Ministry on preventing the entry of foreigners from various world countries who could pose a health risk to Israel’s population.

“Our main consideration is the health of Israeli residents and preserving Israel’s ability to maintain and grow ties with countries around the world, as a state that adheres to strict rules and has not been touched by the coronavirus,” the statement added.

On Sunday Italy and Iran took drastic containment steps as worldwide fears over the epidemic spiraled.

Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centers across 14 provinces from Sunday following five deaths in the Islamic Republic — the most outside East Asia and the first in the Middle East.

More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns near the business hub of Milan were urged by authorities to stay home, while shops and schools were shuttered among dozens of infections and two deaths.

Iranians, some wearing protective masks, wait to cross a street in the capital Tehran on February 22, 2020 (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

China reported another 97 deaths in its daily update Sunday, taking its total to 2,442, plus 648 new infections. Nearly 80,000 infections have been reported worldwide.

The contagion’s spread prompted the World Health Organization to warn that Africa’s unprepared health systems left the continent vulnerable to the disease.

China’s infection rate has slowed sharply from earlier in the epidemic, but Chinese flip-flopping over counting methods has sowed confusion over its data.

There also was growing concern over the difficulty of detecting the virus.

Japan on Sunday confirmed that a woman who tested negative and disembarked from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship later tested positive.

A bus carrying passengers from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship leaves a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Feb. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

Japan has already been criticized over its handling of the ship, which has seen more than 600 cases of COVID-19.

Many passengers were allowed to disembark without being properly tested or despite having close contact with infected people.

More than 1,000 crew remain on board and are expected to serve a 14-day quarantine.

Fifteen Israelis were on the Diamond Princess. Four of them were diagnosed with the virus in Japan and are under quarantine there. Eleven returned to Israel on a specially arranged flight and were also placed in quarantine.

One of the returnees has since been diagnosed with the disease.

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