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Minister: Getting nationals out is more important than ties

With empty seats on flights out of Ukraine, Israelis evidently in no rush to leave

Citizens ignore calls by PM and officials to leave ahead of feared Russian invasion; Lapid meets Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister; families of Israeli diplomats arrive home

Passengers newly arrived from Kyiv walk with their luggage at Israel's Ben Gurion airport on February 13, 2022. (Jack Guez / AFP)
Passengers newly arrived from Kyiv walk with their luggage at Israel's Ben Gurion airport on February 13, 2022. (Jack Guez / AFP)

Civilian flights leaving Ukraine to Israel are not full, Foreign Ministry officials said Sunday, amid urgent calls by officials for Israelis to leave the country amid predictions of a Russian invasion later this week.

Israeli airlines are ready to add additional flights, but the demand is not there right now, the officials said.

Thirty-two flights are scheduled to leave Ukraine for Israel in the coming week, including 10 in the next 48 hours. Airlines are still flying to Ukraine from Ben Gurion Airport.

Yet sources in the aviation industry confirmed to the Kan public broadcaster that there are hardly any Israelis leaving Ukraine, with low occupancy on each flight out to Israel.

The Foreign Ministry estimates that there are 10,000-15,000 Israelis in Ukraine, which includes dual citizens. Some 6,100 had registered with the embassy, as urged by Israeli authorities, as of Sunday afternoon.

Speaking to the broadcaster, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said the ministry preferred to be over-cautious rather than run the risk of not doing enough while it is still able to.

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll attends a ceremony at the ministry in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The deputy minister said that while other countries were pulling out their diplomatic personnel, Israel was sending additional staff to its Kyiv embassy.

“We are reinforcing the embassy in Kyiv in order to better address the needs of citizens of Israel and the Jewish community in Ukraine if necessary,” Roll said.

Israel did, however, begin to repatriate some 150 family members of diplomatic staff and of embassy staff, many of whom were arriving back in Israel on Sunday.

Roll added that the need to attend to the safety of Israeli citizens was now top priority, rather than the diplomatic matter of ties with Ukraine or Russia.

Ukrainians attend a rally in central Kyiv, Ukraine, February 12, 2022, during a protest against the potential escalation of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Earlier, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged Israeli citizens in the Eastern European country to “come home” while they still can.

“Like the rest of the world, we are hoping that the tension will end without an escalation,” he said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “But our first responsibility is to take care of our citizens, Israeli citizens.”

Travelers seen in the departure hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport, as they make their way to Ukraine, February 13, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova in Jerusalem on Sunday.

Lapid expressed his concern over Ukraine’s tensions with Russia and updated Dzhaparova on Israel’s travel warning to its citizens.

Lapid also expressed his hopes that the situation will deescalate as the result of ongoing diplomatic effort.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (1st from right right) meets Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova (first from left) in Jerusalem on February 13, 2022. (courtesy)

Israeli officials believe the window for evacuating citizens from Ukraine is closing fast, and may be shut by Wednesday morning. The Biden administration warned Israel late last week that Russia could invade within days.

Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter conflict since 2014, when Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly leader was driven from office by a popular uprising. Moscow responded by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and then backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed over 14,000 people.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany helped halt large-scale battles, but regular skirmishes have continued, and efforts to reach a political settlement have stalled.

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