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Israel To Almost Completely Shut Ben Gurion Airport For Week Amid Mutation Fears

Cabinet ministers on Sunday approved the near-complete shuttering of Ben Gurion Airport until the end of January, amid fears over fast-spreading or vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants entering the country.

The closure will start from midnight Monday-Tuesday and remain in effect until Sunday, January 31, when national lockdown measures are set to be eased.

A copy of the proposal the ministers approved said all foreign aircraft will be barred from entering Israeli skies or landing at Ben Gurion Airport. Exceptions will be made for cargo planes, emergency aircraft and planes that traverse Israeli airspace without landing.

The document also said departing flights would be limited to those traveling for medical treatment, essential work, legal proceedings, a funeral of a relative and traveling from one residence to another. It said the director of the Health Ministry can grant exceptions for humanitarian or “special personal” reasons.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the measure would “hermetically” seal the skies.

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

Netanyahu claimed “no country” has taken such a step, following months in which the government’s entry policy had been criticised as too lax and been blamed for many COVID-19 cases being imported.

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

A technician collects nasal swab samples at the coronavirus lab at Ben Gurion International Airport on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The only cabinet member to vote against the measure was Absorption and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, apparently in protest of the lack of entry exemptions for new immigrants.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said before the meeting that he would back the closure through the end of the month. Netanyahu said Saturday he would seek a two-week closure.

During the meeting, ministers were shown a Health Ministry document saying only 33 percent of returning travellers between December 26 and January 21 followed quarantine rules, according to the Walla news site.

As the meeting was held, the Health Ministry reported that five more cases of the South African coronavirus variant were found among travellers from South Africa and Dubai. The ministry said 27 total cases of the strain have been detected in Israel.

Orly Greenfeld, a member of coronavirus czar Nachman Ash’s team, told Channel 12 news that only the British and South African variants have been found in Israel. Ash told ministers last week that the British strain accounts for 30-40 percent of new infections and is expected to be the dominant strain in the country within weeks.

Also Sunday, Hebrew media reported that dozens of ultra-Orthodox passengers refused to wear face masks throughout a United Airlines flight from New York to Israel that landed Friday morning, ignoring repeated requests by fellow passengers and staff.

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

Israel is in the midst of a third nationwide lockdown as it seeks to curb COVID-19 infections, while closely watching mutated strains and undertaking a massive vaccination campaign.

This article first appeared in The Times of Israel, an Israeli based online newspaper.