News Digest — 3/6/20

Unfriendly Skies? Ben Gurion Airport Near Empty Due To Virus Fears

As Israel’s Ministry of Health tries to limit the danger to Israelis from the coronavirus by calling on citizens not to fly abroad and adding more countries to the banned tourist list, the ones feeling the pinch immediately are a thousand El Al employees who were handed pink slips.

The national airline has told hundreds of temporary workers, including air crew and ground personnel they are getting laid off.  The company is also planning to fire 600 permanent employees as tens of thousands of customers cancelled their flights over recent days.

The top directors in the company will take a 20 percent pay cut, and CEO Gonen Ussishkin has asked the Histadrut Labor Federation and local workers’ committee to allow for a similar drop in salary for the highest paid employees, including pilots.

The starkest symbol of the drastic reduction in flights into and out of the country is a practically empty Ben Gurion Airport.

Foreign tourists from China, South Korea, Italy, and other countries with high numbers of coronavirus victims are not being allowed into the country.  This list is set to expand Friday (6th) with German, French, Swiss and Spanish visitors to be banned as well. 

This isn’t only an Israeli problem.  Until the current health crisis is over, airline and tourism industries around the world are facing a huge hit to their bottom line, at least for the first half of 2020.



Coronavirus In Bethlehem: Palestinians Declare State Of Emergency

The Palestinian Authority (PA) on Thursday (5th) declared a state of emergency in Bethlehem, Jericho and the Jordan Valley following the discovery of the first cases of coronavirus in the PA-run areas.

Palestinian officials closed the famous Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem indefinitely over fears of the virus, weeks ahead of the busy Easter holiday season.

The Church of the Nativity was closed after suspicions that four Palestinians had caught the virus, prompting a flurry of measures that included banning all tourists from the Palestinian-ruled areas for an unspecified amount of time and shutting down other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks.

The Palestinian health ministry later said a total of seven Palestinians from Bethlehem have tested positive for the virus, the first cases reported in the Palestinian-administered territories.

It was said the seven worked at a hotel where a group of Greek tourists stayed during a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February.  The tourists tested positive for the virus after returning to Greece.

The Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, where the suspected cases came from, has now been converted into an isolation facility, and the Palestinian Authority is taking precautions in light of the many tourist groups arriving in Bethlehem.

The PA ordered a halt on the reception of tourists in hotels in the cities of Bethlehem and Jericho for 14 days as well as the closure of all educational institutions.  It also banned all public events planned in these areas, including prayers in mosques and churches.



Israel Purchasing $2.4 Billion In New Military Refueling Aircraft From U.S.

The U.S. State Department approved on Tuesday (3rd) a tentative sale to Israel of eight KC-46 refueling aircraft and related equipment at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion.

According to the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), the sale was finalized Thursday (5th).

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel and it is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self defense capability,” the DSCA said in a statement. “This proposed sale is consistent with those objectives.”

“In addition the sale improves Israel’s national security posture as a key U.S. ally,” the statement added.

The DSCA also said that the sale could benefit the U.S. by “potentially” freeing up its assets in the Middle East in times of conflict.

“Just like the U.S. Air Force,  the KC-46 will give the Israeli Air Force the ability to reach out and do whatever it needs to do at any time, be it humanitarian or combat operations,” an unnamed Air Force lieutenant colonel told Channel 12 news.



Israeli Election A Reminder Of The Absence Of Democracy Under The PA and Hamas – Khaled Abu Toameh

The Palestinians are the only people in the Middle East who do not have a functioning parliament.  The Hamas coup in Gaza in 2007 led to a split with the West Bank that has effectively paralyzed the Palestinian parliament ever since.  In 2018, Abbas said he would hold elections within six months but has not fulfilled his promise. The absence of parliamentary life for the Palestinians has been highly convenient for Abbas, who continues to demonstrate zero tolerance towards his political rivals and critics.

At the same time, Arab members of the Knesset in Israel are free to say whatever they wish about the Israeli government and its policies without giving a single thought to possible repercussions.  If the Arab Knesset members were living under the Abbas regime, the likely scenarios would be arrest or worse.

The Palestinian members of the PA parliament can only envy their Arab colleagues in Israel for the existence of free elections and for the exceptional freedom that Arab citizens of Israel enjoy.  For the Palestinians, each Israeli election serves as a sad reminder of the catastrophic failure of Palestinian leaders and the complete absence of democracy under the PA and Hamas.



March Of Living Fate Unclear As Poland Gets Coronavirus Case

Organizers of the March of the Living insisted that the annual international commemoration in Poland was on course for April despite the cancellation of some delegations over corona fears.

On Thursday (5th), following the discovery of the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Poland, the ORT school in Lyon, France, announced it would not send its members to the event which is scheduled for April 21 at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

“We’re sitting out this year because of the situation around the virus,” a spokeswoman for the school told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

She said she believed the entire French delegation would not attend this year.

The March of the Living brings together thousands of participants, many from Jewish schools and youth movements, from more than 20 countries to Auschwitz on Yom Hashoah, Israel’s day of commemoration for Holocaust victims.  Each country-group is composed of smaller delegations from various organizations. A spokeswoman for the United Jewish Social Fund, which organizes the French delegation, confirmed “there have been cancelations.” She declined to say whether the French delegation was canceled outright.

Israel will not be sending a delegation this year as per the decision of its Education Ministry, according to a spokeswoman for Shlomit, an Israeli association representing members of national service groups.  Aharon Tamir, the march’s deputy world chairman, wrote in an email to JTA: “For now nothing has changed.  We’re looking at the developments and will decide on the ground according to their implications.  There’s no certainty in either direction and we’re hoping for the best.” He said he expected to make a statement next week.

The British delegation likewise declined to give a definite answer on its attendance when contacted by JTA, while a spokesperson for the German group said it “does plan to go for now, although of course we might cancel if there is an outbreak in Poland.”

The Australian and U.S. delegations did not immediately answer.  The Canadian group said Thursday (5th) that it would attend as planned.

The delegation from Italy, where more than 2,000 have been infected, especially in the north, may be barred from entering Poland, even if it decides to attend.

Last week, Israel suspended indefinitely all school trips to Poland, where thousands of students tour the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.

Tens of thousands have been infected globally since the December outbreak in China, and cases in 50 countries have resulted in thousands of deaths.

Sam Rosenberg, a former organizer of the March of the Living’s Australian delegation, said he believes the event should be canceled.  “It seems irresponsible not to cancel,” he said. “The delegations have physicians but they’re capable of treating injuries, not pandemics, in a country like Poland.”