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South Koreans being shipped out of Israel on special flights amid virus fears

South Korean visitors are leaving Israel en masse amid coronavirus concerns after the number of cases mounted in the East Asian country and a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that all South Koreans in Israel be quickly flown out of the country.

The Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged Israelis not to visit Japan and South Korea over fears of exposure to the COVID-19 virus, also recommending that Israelis currently in South Korea consider leaving the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) holds a situation assessment meeting with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (R) regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-2019), at the Health Ministry in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on February 23, 2020. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The development Monday comes a day after the Health Ministry said South Korean tourists recently in Israel had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending hundreds of Israelis who were in proximity to the travelers into home quarantine. Some 200 Israeli students and teachers were instructed to enter isolation due to being in several tourist sites at the same time as the group.

The South Korean tourists were diagnosed upon returning home. According to Seoul, 29 of the pilgrims tested positive for the virus.

South Korea confirmed Monday 70 more novel coronavirus cases nationwide, bringing its tally to 833, by far the largest national total outside China. The updated figures on the website of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) brought the country’s daily increase to 231, its highest to date.

The Israel Airport Authority (IAA) said in a statement Monday morning that 622 Korean nationals had left the country since Sunday night, and that between 800 and 900 still remained in the country.

Many have arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, where they were forced to spend the night after they were rejected by hotels and by residents of a settlement near Jerusalem where they were supposed to be quarantined on an adjacent army base.

Airport staff tried to help the Koreans by providing them with mattresses, food and water. They are also helping them get tickets for one of several flights to Seoul arranged especially to return the Koreans back home that will then refuel and return — empty — to Israel to fly more travelers to South Korea.

The first such flight is expected at 4 p.m. (Israel time), with the exact schedule still to be determined, the IAA said.

Three such El Al and Arkia flights are expected to depart by 10 p.m. in Boeing 777 planes that will be disinfected upon returning to Israel. El Al was asked by authorities to operate the flights after Korean Air suspended its flights to the Jewish state.

Passengers will undergo medical examinations six to eight hours before their flight to establish that they haven’t caught the virus.

Flight attendants will not hand out meals during the flights, and the food will be pre-placed next to each seat, El Al told its employees. The attendants will stay in the business class section throughout the flight, with one of them passing through the economy class area once every 30 minutes to check all is okay safety-wise. Rubbish will only be collected at the end of the flight.

One of the Koreans who spent the night at the airport told the Ynet news website: “We don’t understand Israel’s treatment of us. We know there are fears and we really want to go home, but we are not lepers.”

Header: Tourists from Korea wearing protective masks walking with their belongings while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)