The Israeli cabinet voted today to close the airport to all outgoing and ingoing air traffic beginning at midnight on Monday night.
This would include anyone who previously purchased tickets leaving many travelers scrambling to figure out their options.
Despite nearing the end of its third national lockdown which was extended until Feb. 1 (and could likely be further extended), the government is taking these drastic measures due to fears of coronavirus mutations some which are already reportedly spreading in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu submitted his proposal to the cabinet this morning on locking down Ben-Gurion International Airport for at least two weeks. In the end, the cabinet agreed to close the skies until the end of January with the option to extend the travel ban yet again.
"Contrary to what is being said, we are ahead of the whole world. No country has done what we are about to do," Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting. "We are doing this. We are hermetically closing the skies apart from very rare exceptions in order to prevent the entry of mutated viruses and in order to ensure that we will advance quickly with our vaccines operation, 'Back to Life', so that we will vaccinate more Israelis within a short time."
This seal on incoming and outgoing travelers extends to new immigrants who were scheduled to make aliyah to the Jewish state next week.
"There are immigrants who are supposed to come next week, and you're sending them to the Exceptions Committee," objected Pnina Tamano-Shata, immigration minister.
"If there's a pandemic, we need to halt immigration," Netanyahu responded. "They can wait."
The borders have been closed to foreigners since March, but now even Israelis will not be able to enter the country, or leave, without special permission approved by a committee headed by the Health and Transportation Ministry director generals.
Special flights for “humanitarian purposes” will be an exception.
The closure even restrains those who have received both doses of the vaccine from being able to travel.
According to some news reports, Health Ministry officials are considering only reopening the airport fully when a minimum of 5 million Israelis have been vaccinated. This could take more than a month bringing us into March — a full year from the time Israel closed its borders to foreigners when the coronavirus was first discovered here.
Another new regulation went into effect last night requiring that anyone entering the country have a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of their flight into Israel. Airlines have been instructed not to let passengers board without a negative test. Even with a negative result, all incoming travelers must quarantine for two weeks.
In the midst of a third national lockdown, in effect since late December, Israel’s infections rates have skyrocketed and have set new records hitting as high as 10,000 positive cases of the coronavirus in one day. At the same time, a massive vaccine blitz has taken the country by storm with more than 2 million Israelis already getting at least the first dose of the shot in less than one months. Some 973,000 have received both doses.
Israel is leading the world in its per capita vaccination rate.
The vaccine campaign opened last week to include pregnant women and now, today, 16 to 18 year olds — making Israel among the first countries to vaccinate these demographics. In fact, Tel Ha Shomer Hospital has invited pregnant women to participate in the first trial study of its kind.
Despite the lockdown and the high vaccine distribution, a military-led task force warned of the potential emergence of a mutated Israeli variant of the coronavirus that could render the vaccine ineffective. In a report for the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, Military Intelligence recommended that those who have received vaccines or recovered from COVID-19 be tested and be subject to quarantine requirements upon entering the country.
“The mass vaccine campaign taking place parallel to the active outbreak in Israel may lead to ‘evolutionary pressure’ on the virus,” the report read.
Variants of COVID-19 have been discovered in England, South Africa, Brazil and America. Israel’s coronavirus czar believes that up to 40% of the cases today are due to the British strain including six out of seven pregnant women screened.
There are currently 76,783 active cases of coronavirus in Israel, which is a decrease. However, As of Saturday evening, 4,341 reported deaths were reported.
This comes as the Oxford-based Our World in Data showed that Israel is 56th in the world in terms of deaths per million people, a higher death rate than in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Egypt.
This figure, it said, represents Israel’s unacknowledged coronavirus “failure.”
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein bristled at the criticism when confronted on Channel 13.
“We’ve handled the pandemic efficiently,” Edelstein said in an interview. He noted that Israel should be compared to countries like Britain, Belgium, Italy and the United States, which show higher per capita death tolls. “How dare you cite a ‘failure’ to handle the coronavirus.”
Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS