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Iranian now representing Mongolia 'very happy' to be here

With Israel’s skies closed, 600 athletes arrive for judo contest, drawing rebuke

While citizens can’t return home due to COVID fears, expert says hosting judokas from all over the world creates unnecessary risk of letting in infections, mutated strains

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A judo event held in Tel Aviv in 2020. (Flash90)
Illustrative: A judo event held in Tel Aviv in 2020. (Flash90)

While entrance to Israel for citizens and non-citizens alike is severely restricted save for limited, exceptional cases, the country is this week allowing in more than 600 athletes from all over the world to participate in an international judo tournament, sparking criticism from health officials, travelers and others.

A top doctor on the frontline of the Jewish state’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic on Monday slammed the Tel Aviv event as an unnecessary risk that could bring new mutations of the COVID-19 into the country.

The Tel Aviv Grand Slam participants include Iranian dissident Saeid Mollaei, who fled his home country after being forced to lose a match on purpose to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in 2019.

Now representing Mongolia, he arrived in the country Sunday night and said he was “very happy” to be in Israel.

Judoka Saeid Mollaei. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

However, as the athletes arrive — subject to a recent negative COVID-19 test — thousands of Israelis are not being allowed back into the country due to the strict limitations on flights in and out of the country, imposed last month in an effort to prevent virus infections and new strains arriving from abroad as part of national lockdown.

“I am really against it. I think it is a mistake,” Dror Mevorach, head of Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital’s coronavirus department, told Radio 103FM.

Prof. Dror Mevorach, head of Hadassah hospital Ein Kerem’s coronavirus department, February 9, 2021. (Channel 13 screenshot)

Mevorach pointed to a recent incident in Australia where a man quarantined in a Melbourne hotel after arriving from abroad who was unknowingly infected with the COVID-19 used a nebulizer that spread the virus to the air-conditioning system and so infected others staying at the hotel. As a result, the entire city was placed under a snap lockdown even though the state of Victoria had just exited a closure that successfully eradicated new cases.

“Every tiny mistake like that is dangerous,” Mevorach said.

Earlier, Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper defended the event, saying there was always a need to balance public health with the economy.

The judo contest will provide employment for thousands of Israelis, he noted. He said competitors would be placed under tight conditions to prevent a virus outbreak.

“I think we found the proper balance,” said Tropper, who is a member of the Blue and White party, which has urged further easing current restrictions.

Last week, the chair of the Israel Judo Association, Moshe Ponte, outlined the strict terms under which the contest is being held.

Ponte told the Kan public broadcaster that each competitor has to undergo several virus tests before being allowed to participate. Four chartered planes are bringing the competitors to the country from two European collection points, in Paris and Istanbul. The flights are only carrying those who are taking part in the event.

Before being allowed on the plane, each competitor and trainer needs to provide two negative virus tests. In Israel, the arrivals undergo another virus test and are quarantined in hotel rooms, unable to leave until a negative result is confirmed.

Blue and White MK Chili Tropper at the Knesset on April 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Those who are clear of the virus will be permitted to leave their rooms, though competitors will be kept in small pods and isolated from those on other floors of the building, including for meals and transport to the competition venue. Transportation vehicles will be disinfected after each journey.

A training center has been made available at the hotel, but competitors are only able to use it one at a time after booking sessions in advance, and the entire facility will be disinfected between sessions.

Ben Gurion Airport has been almost entirely shuttered since January 25, except for cargo planes and emergency aircraft.

Departing flights during this time have been limited to those traveling for medical treatment, essential work, legal proceedings, a funeral of a relative, noncitizens leaving the country and those traveling from one residence to another. Those needing to travel for other circumstances have been allowed to submit their case to an interministerial committee for review.

On Sunday, the government decided to relax the closure to allow up to 2,000 people a day to arrive in the country.

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