Israel’s healthcare system is currently gearing up to cope with the recent Corona virus outbreak, and the main entry point to the country, Ben-Gurion International Airport, is mostly deserted – a clear illustration of the severe impairment suffered by global air transportation due to the Corona virus epidemic.

In contrast, in Israel’s sea ports, which serve as a gateway for Israel’s maritime trade, things are more or less proceeding as usual. In his attempt to calm the public from the onslaught on supermarket shelves, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in his Facebook account that “Most of the supply to the State of Israel comes by sea – products, raw materials, including food, and there is no reason to storm the supermarkets. There is an adequate amount of food and there will be enough food.” Indeed, Israeli ports have so far been successful in maintaining the atmosphere of “business as usual” and continue loading and unloading cargo ships arriving and departing. Much of this is due to the solidarity of the port employees, who in regular time are usually viewed negatively by the public for their “unionist behaviour”. Nonetheless, in past emergency situations such as the Yom Kippur war of 1973 or the second Lebanon war of 2006, those employees didn’t hesitate to work tirelessly in order to keep Israel’s maritime port open, minimizing damage to the Israeli economy.

A historical study regarding the influence of epidemics and diseases on the entry into Israel via the sea ports during the early 19th century, reveals that epidemics and disease events have already occurred in the ports in our region. At that time, the Middle East was a region in conflict: and during the second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic in November 1918, the vast troop movements in and out the region hastily spread the pandemic, with “Jaffa… in all likelihood the first point of entry for the virus on the Levantine coast, carried by British ships from Alexandria or Port Said”.[1] The basic procedures to handle them were quite similar to those of our modern era. An article published in the “Hatzsphira” newspaper described a quarantine of ten days on all ships from the Port of Alexandria, which would be expanded to include all the following ships from all along the coasts.

The main difference between the 19th and early 20th century and the current situation is that at this time, about 99 percent of Israel’s goods, cargo, raw material and foreign trade (in terms of weight) is transported by ships, primarily by global shipping companies, i.e. ships that are not registered in Israel and are not under Israeli control. Therefore, the economy of the State of Israel is critically dependent on the proper functioning of its ports. Israel’s foreign trade accounts for about two-thirds of its GDP, the highest in the world. Moreover, there is no substantial alternative to transporting goods at sea even in the long run: air and land alternatives are far from attractive in economic terms (even after the peace treaties Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan) and the air trade is certainly incapable of meeting Israel’s needs for import of dry and liquid bulk cargoes (livestock, fuel, chemicals, etc.). The Israeli economy is actually an “island economy” in the Middle East, as there is virtually no freight across the land borders between Israel and its neighbors.

Lessons learned from past experience suggest that there have been instances in which encounters between different of civilizations have resulted in an extreme violation of the balance between humans and viruses – as may be the case again due to increased globalization. The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

Over the years and in order to prevent epidemics from spreading through the vessels’ crews to the onshore population, procedures have been established to place the ships in an isolation period, where vessels were ordered to dock outside the harbor for 40 days (expected incubation period of the disease at that time). After 40 days of no deaths or illness, the vessel hoisted a yellow flag, by which it declared itself free of quarantinable disease, and requested boarding and routine port inspection. A physician would board the vessel and make sure that no diseased patients were on board, and would clear the vessel to dock at the port. Hence the origin of the Latin word quarantine, which means “forty days”. The yellow flag sign and the health declaration layout still remain at present, even though the methods have been adapted to today’s advanced communication technology. Either way, globalization and epidemics are well-known events in maritime history, and the Corona virus has been preceded by many other viruses that spread across the continents through ships and vessels.

In a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) four months after the corona epidemic broke out (March 9th, 2020), the organization warned of a $ 50 billion losses in the global production chain as a result of China’s downturn due to the Corona eruption. “Because China has become a major manufacturing hub for many global businesses, manufacturing slowdown is affecting every country dependent on suppliers from China,” said the press release accompanying the study. As of mid-March 2020, the total global hit in all industries could reach $ 2 trillion. China, where the Corona virus was first discovered, which is also the second largest economy in the world, shrank sharply in the first two months of 2020, and imports to the country slowed after the Corona crisis led to significant disruptions in business activity, damage to the global supply chain and slowing economic activity. The outbreak of the epidemic across China and then the rest of the world has affected the decisions of the manufacturing sector, importers, and exporters. China has dramatically reduced imports of hydrocarbon fuels (crude oil and coal) and iron ore. Since China is the largest consumer in the world, this has a profound effect on the global shipping market where a large supply of surplus is caused. Container ship operators say the coronavirus outbreak is their biggest crisis since 2009. Dozens of sailings have been cancelled and vessels are being idled at a record pace.

Despite the severe impact of the Corona virus on the Israeli economy and the Israeli industry sector, Israeli ports continue to function reasonably well; about two weeks ago, a ship arriving at the port of Haifa from Italy (where the corona was expanding considerably), carrying containers of 150 tons of chilled fresh meat, was refused entry at the port of Haifa. However, the ship eventually entered the port and unloaded the containers. In a meeting between the port management, port employees and the Haifa District Director of the Ministry of Health, the parties agreed on a procedure to allow the unloading of ships at the port. Under the direction of the Ministry of Health and with the consent of the workers, it was agreed that in such cases, the crew of the ship will remain isolated in their cabins during unloading, thus avoiding contact between the foreign crew and port crane operators, and that the Haifa port discharge team will be equipped with appropriate protection gear. In addition, the Ministry of Health will prohibit the ship’s crew from going on a shore leave vacation while in port to prevent any contact between them and local residents or workers. It should be noted that even in normal routine, the unloading of the containers does not require cooperation with the crew on the ship.

At Ashdod port, workers continue to unload ships after receiving clarifications and confirmations from the Ministry of Health. Previously, there was a significant concern that ships arriving from Italy (most cargo ships in the Mediterranean pass through a number of ports, including Italy) would not be allowed to unload, which could damage the supply of food and goods to Israel. Such a refusal would have led to a situation where the ships would have to unload their goods in Cyprus and transfer from there to Israel, at a significant cost. In an interview for the Calcalist newspaper, port of Ashdod director, Mr. Yitzhak Cohen stated: “We have been instructed by the Ministry of Health on how to handle such situations, since the trade continues. Every ship that arrives comes under close scrutiny, verifying where it came from and who is on board. We further ensure that the ships’ unloading and loading operations have been carried out properly. The maritime journey from the Far East to Israel “burns” the two or three weeks of incubation of the virus.”

Every maritime nation maintains a policy to preserve its national shipping sector, for both economic and strategic reasons. This policy is manifested in a system of exemptions, preferential tax treatment, financial support and assistance, preference in the transport of government and public cargo, assistance to shipyards and ship owners, training of maritime manpower, etc. Furthermore, most countries work to advance bilateral and multilateral shipping agreements with the goal of improving the terms of trade between countries and to prevent economic discrimination against their national shipping sector.

Each year, over 6,000 merchant ships enter Israel’s ports, but only 4% of them are Israeli- owned; the vast majority of ships are not sailing under an Israeli flag, but are foreign ships – in accordance with the period of globalization – and as long as an adequate port service is provided to them (even if their crew is kept in isolation), they will continue to visit Israeli ports. But in a possible scenario where the threat to shipping and ports is not as global as the Corona virus, for instance the firing of tens of thousands of missiles at Israeli ports from the Gaza Strip and/or from Lebanon, there is no guarantee that foreign ships will continue to enter Israeli ports. The current situation of Israeli shipping may lead to a problematic dependence on foreign commercial fleets (foreign shipping companies) and foreign seamen filling critical national tasks. The need for an independent shipping sector in an emergency is self-evident and is the responsibility of leaders in the defense sector and those charged with maintaining the economy in an emergency; it is their job to define the need and how to meet it. Therefore, the issue of Israeli shipping should be placed higher on the government’s agenda and policy makers should dedicate greater attention to this issue. Failure to do so could mean that anyone at the helm of government will not be able to reassure Israeli citizens in an emergency situation, as Prime Minister Netanyahu did in his March 11 statement. A decision should be made as soon as possible to adopt a long-term policy that will significantly improve the situation of both ships and maritime manpower, and ensure the existence of Israeli shipping.


*Professor Chorev Shaul is the director of the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center (HMS) in the University of Haifa. 

**Captain Alex Gerson is the head of the Wydra Shipping and Ports Division at the HMS Research Center, University of Haifa. 

This article was first published on the website of the Maritime Research and Policy Research Center (HMS) at the University of Haifa in Israel in April 2020 and is hosted on the NMF website with due permission.


[1] Lind Kjell, The Impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic on Greater Syria, London School of Oriental and African Studies, 2012

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