Israel to shut country for a week amid fears of COVID -19 mutation


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country will be sealed “hermetically” from international flights for a week to help prevent the entry of a highly contagious COVID-19 mutation.

“We are closing the country hermetically. Just in this week of closing the skies, we will vaccinate another million Israelis,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

Ben Gurion Airport will be closed to international flights beginning midnight Monday and ending Jan. 31, when national lockdown measures are expected to be eased, the Times of Israel reported.

Exceptions will be allowed for cargo planes, emergency flights and aicraft that traverse Israeli airspace without landing, according to the news outlet.

A copy of the proposal that cabinet members approved also said departing flights would be limited to those traveling for medical treatment, essential work, legal proceedings, a relative’s funeral and traveling from one residence to another.

The director of the Health Ministry also may grant exceptions for humanitarian or “special personal” reasons, the document said.

According to leaks from the meeting, Netanyahu said the clampdown was necessary due to “the urgency of mutations in the world” and that unlike past instances in which “we closed the skies… now we’re really closing, without commercial flights or anything except exceptions. First of all, close.”

Medical staff work at the COVID-19 rapid testing center in Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Medical staff work at the COVID-19 rapid testing center in Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport.
JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

He claimed that “no country” has taken such major action, following months in which the Israeli government’s entry policy had been assailed as too lax and been blamed for many coronavirus cases being imported.

During the meeting, ministers were shown a Health Ministry document that said only 33 percent of people returning to Israel between Dec. 26 and Jan. 21 followed quarantine rules, the Walla news site reported.

The Health Ministry reported Sunday that five more cases of the South African COVID-19 variant were found among travelers from South Africa and Dubai.

The ministry added that 27 total cases of the strain have been detected in the country.

Meanwhile, local media reported that dozens of ultra-Orthodox passengers refused to wear face masks on a United Airlines flight from New York to Israel that landed Friday.

Passenger Tali Tenenbaum described the flight as traumatic, telling Radio 103FM that people tried to stay away from the “coronavirus breeding ground” by going to the bathroom and couldn’t eat or sleep.

Ben Gurion Airport will be closed to international flights January 31, 2021.
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Israeli police have clashed with ultra-Orthodox protesters in several major cities amid its highly successful campaign to vaccinate its population against the deadly bug.

Many major ultra-Orthodox sects have ignored safety regulations, continuing to open schools, pray in synagogues and hold mass weddings and funerals despite broader lockdown orders.

The ultra-Orthodox community accounts for over one-third of Israel’s coronavirus cases, despite making up just over 10 percent of the population.

“I expect all citizens of Israel to respect the safety guidelines. That includes all the sectors, including the ultra-Orthodox,” said Netanyahu, who is relying on ultra-Orthodox support in upcoming national elections.

Travelers wait by the check-in desk at the departures area of Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport
Travelers wait by the check-in desk at the departures area of Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport.
JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

He said that most of the community has respected safety guidelines and attributed the latest troubles to a small minority acting in an “unacceptable” manner.

In just a month, Israel has vaccinated over a quarter of its 9.2 million people.

At the same time, the virus continues to race through the country, with officials confirming an average of over 8,000 new cases a day.

With Post wires

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