Stranded: From South America to Asia, 8,000 Israelis Scramble to Get Home as Borders Close

Emergency airlifts have brought some travelers back to Israel as the coronavirus crisis intensifies, but others are still struggling to find a way home

Young Israelis being reunited with their families at Ben-Gurion Airport after arriving on special flights from Lima, Peru, March 20, 2020.
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Hauling backpacks and duffle bags, wearing masks and gloves, four planeloads of exhausted young Israeli travelers flowed through Ben-Gurion airport all day Friday. Greeted by mask-wearing parents tearfully blowing kisses from a social distance, unable to embrace their children, a rousing round of applause arose each time the El Al pilots and flight attendants who had manned the special operation airlifting stranded Israeli citizens in Peru appeared.

The returning Israelis were visibly relieved to have made it out of the South American country, which closed its borders and went into quarantine with less than 24 hours notice, stranding over 1,000 of them – many in towns and villages far from the international airport in Lima.

Once the quarantine was imposed, getting the youngsters out required the Israeli government’s intervention. At first, the Foreign Ministry’s efforts resulted in El Al offering a free rescue flight. Later, after it became clear that the number of stranded travelers far exceeded a single planeload, the airline spearheaded a fundraising effort that ultimately involved a long list of private companies and philanthropists (including some of the country’s major banks, supermarkets, food manufacturers and high-tech giants, alongside private donations).

While Peru’s lockdown was unusually swift, more and more countries have been closing their borders and shuttering their airports, forcing the Israeli government to urge all of its citizens overseas to head home.

“Come home! Dear Israelis who are traveling anywhere in the world, now is the time to go back to Israel,” was the impassioned video plea by David Saranga, the Israeli ambassador to Romania. “We are calling on Israeli citizens to leave at once, before lockdowns happen and all of the outgoing flights are canceled. This time, we’re not recommending it – we are calling on you to return. NOW!”

Numerous other ambassadors posted similar warnings.

An Israeli traveler after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport from Lima, Peru, March 20, 2020. (Full disclosure: He is the correspondent's son.)
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Last chance for help

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat estimates there are still more than 8,000 Israelis around the world still trying to return home.

“We are trying to help every Israeli who wishes to come back,” Haiat tells Haaretz. “We are calling on every Israeli to do their best to get on a flight as soon as possible. When the airports will be closed, there is not going to be any way we can help them.”

Last week’s airlift from Peru – some 12,500 kilometers (7,725 miles) from Israel – was marred by chaotic scenes at Lima airport and the fact that 100 Israelis who had not registered with the Foreign Ministry made their way onto the first flights, resulting in 23 travelers being left behind.

Still, the airlift was celebrated by the government and El Al. One of the company’s veteran pilots who participated in the mission, Capt. Ofer Aloni, noted in a video released by the company that the flight crews spent a total of 43 hours inside the aircraft – the longest they had ever spent onboard. “I don’t think any [other] country would undertake such a rescue mission to bring back its citizens,” he said.

Israel wasn’t alone in working with the Peruvian government to get its citizens out, but its efforts were the earliest and on the largest scale. Travelers from other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, have been clamoring for their governments to offer similar assistance. Many will only arrange flights this week.

While the Peru operation was unique in offering free flights, both El Al and another carrier, Israir Airlines, arranged special flights from other countries to assist travelers holding tickets on canceled flights or those unable to find available seats.

Israir brought Israelis back from Moldova, Ukraine and Romania. El Al also arranged special flights from the Italian cities of Rome and Milan – helping bring Israelis home from the country that is now the hardest-hit by the coronavirus.

An Israir flight was in the works from Goa, India, and El Al transformed a cargo plane into a passenger flight to bring Israelis home from India’s biggest city, Mumbai, before that country’s one-week ban on all international flights came into effect on Sunday night.

A deserted arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, March 12, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

Hundreds of Israelis were left stranded after Air India – which flies frequently between the two nations – canceled all flights. The Foreign Ministry urged Israelis who could not find flights to leave the country by land and fly home from neighboring countries.

The ministry is also in the process of helping travelers in Bolivia, which has closed its ports, to cross into Brazil.

The ministry says it is doing its best to respond to the pleas emanating from a long list of countries. In many places, seats on flights to Israel are impossible to find – or if they do exist, the price tag is prohibitively high.

Some travelers are also wary of connecting through airports in countries where the coronavirus is running rampant, scared that their connecting flight could be canceled and they will be trapped in a foreign airport in a dangerous location.

Haiat says the ministry is directing Israelis to find flights out of the Far East and Latin America, usually connecting through European or African airports. He says the free ride offered to those in Peru was a one-time event, and that the beating the Israeli economy is currently taking means that the likelihood of organizing similar public or private funding to bring other travelers home is slim.

In the absence of other assistance, some travelers’ families have launched online crowdfunding campaigns to underwrite the price of airline tickets.

“Usually, it’s not a question of the price,” Haiat says. “In most cases, there just aren’t many flights and so – no seats. But yes, there are Israelis who are waiting for a free flight to come their way.”

That won’t happen, he reiterates, and “they should come back to Israel no matter how much it costs: It will cost a lot more to stay where they are.”

Haiat is hopeful the 23 travelers left behind in Peru will soon be on their way home. A German flight was expected to ferry German citizens home from Lima on Monday, and the Foreign Ministry was arranging for the 23 Israelis to be permitted to board that plane to Berlin, Haiat says. “From Germany they will have to find a way to get to Israel,” he says, noting that while there are no direct flights, there are connections through several cities.

‘Mental challenge’

On Sunday, El Al announced that at the government’s behest it has scheduled a list of new nonstop “rescue flights” from Australia, Costa Rica, India and Brazil. The flights will be free for those holding an El Al return ticket for any date; others will pay between $655 to $1,597, depending on the length of the flight.

Among those holding a ticket for the Costa Rica flight: 17-year-old Alma Pinchuk, a student at the United World College in San José, where she’s been studying for the past six months, far from home in Ramat Gan.

Alma Pinchuk, left, and the other Israeli she is stranded with in Costa Rica, Noam Sharabi, 18 from Kfar Aza.
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The school had initially hoped to remain open, but after COVID-19 continued to spread in the Central American country (which had seen two deaths and 134 confirmed cases as of Sunday), Pinchuk relates that “the administration team let us know that it’s too risky to keep us in the school, and that we have to go home as soon as possible.”

Pinchuk says about 85 percent of the students were easily able to find flights home, but she and another Israeli student found themselves stranded.

“We couldn’t book a flight through the U.S. since we don’t have a U.S. visa, and the flights that we booked through Panama and Canada both got canceled,” she relays.

An attempt to charter a plane fell through when the crowdfunding effort to pay for it failed to raise enough funds. Staying optimistic through it all, she says, was a “mental challenge.” Now she feels lucky to have a ticket home, as “there are kids here at my school who are stuck without the ability to get even close to their own countries.

“It has been really hard to keep a positive attitude,” she admits, “but with the support of my parents and of my friends inside and outside the school, I was able to do it.”