'We don't understand Israel's treatment; we are not lepers'

South Koreans being shipped out of Israel on special flights amid virus fears

Many have already left Jewish state following new measures, and hundreds of remaining visitors will leave Monday after many were forced to spend the night at the airport

Tourists from Korea wearing protective masks walking with their belongings while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, February 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Tourists from Korea wearing protective masks walking with their belongings while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, February 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

South Korean visitors are leaving Israel en masse amid coronavirus concerns after the number of cases mounted in the East Asian country and a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that all South Koreans in Israel be quickly flown out of the country.

The Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged Israelis not to visit Japan and South Korea over fears of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, also recommending that Israelis currently in South Korea consider leaving the country.

The development Monday comes a day after the Health Ministry said South Korean tourists recently in Israel had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending hundreds of Israelis who were in proximity to the travelers into home quarantine. 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 South Korean tourists were diagnosed upon returning home. According to Seoul, 29 of the pilgrims tested positive for the virus.

South Korea confirmed Monday 70 more novel coronavirus cases nationwide, bringing its tally to 833, by far the largest national total outside China. The updated figures on the website of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) brought the country’s daily increase to 231, its highest to date.

The Israel Airport Authority (IAA) said in a statement Monday morning that 622 Korean nationals had left the country since Sunday night, and that between 800 and 900 still remained in the country.

Many have arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, where they were forced to spend the night after they were rejected by hotels and by residents of a settlement near Jerusalem where they were supposed to be quarantined on an adjacent army base.

Tourists from Korea wear protective masks as they wait for their flight, at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Airport staff tried to help the Koreans by providing them with mattresses, food and water. They are also helping them get tickets for one of several flights to Seoul arranged especially to return the Koreans back home that will then refuel and return — empty — to Israel to fly more travelers to South Korea.

The first such flight is expected at 4 p.m. (Israel time), with the exact schedule still to be determined, the IAA said.

Three such El Al and Arkia flights are expected to depart by 10 p.m. in Boeing 777 planes that will be disinfected upon returning to Israel. El Al was asked by authorities to operate the flights after Korean Air suspended its flights to the Jewish state.

Passengers will undergo medical examinations six to eight hours before their flight to establish that they haven’t caught the virus.

Flight attendants will not hand out meals during the flights, and the food will be pre-placed next to each seat, El Al told its employees. The attendants will stay in the business class section throughout the flight, with one of them passing through the economy class area once every 30 minutes to check all is okay safety-wise. Rubbish will only be collected at the end of the flight.

One of the Koreans who spent the night at the airport told the Ynet news website: “We don’t understand Israel’s treatment of us. We know there are fears and we really want to go home, but we are not lepers.”

Starting Monday, Israel will also ban all foreign nationals who have been to South Korea and Japan in the past 14 days from entering the country. 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) holds a situation assessment with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (R) regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak at the Health Ministry in Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israeli citizens returning from South Korea and Japan or who were there in the last 14 days must quarantine themselves at home for two weeks upon their return, the ministry said.

The Israeli embassies in Seoul and Japan will continue operations as usual, it said.

South Korea’s president said Sunday that he was putting his country on its highest alert for infectious diseases and ordered officials to take “unprecedented, powerful” steps to fight a soaring viral outbreak.

China also reported hundreds of more infections for a total of more than 79,000, and Iran raised its death toll from the virus to 50 — the highest toll outside of China. While the number of patients worldwide is increasing, some virus clusters have shown no link to China and experts are struggling to trace where those clusters started.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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