As part of intensifying efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus, government measures announced on March 9 required all Israeli citizens returning to Israel from any location overseas to enter a 14-day home quarantine upon return.
At the same time, it was announced that foreign nationals would only be permitted to enter Israel if they apply for a special permit from the Foreign Ministry in advance and “can demonstrate their ability to enter home quarantine in Israel.” Short-term tourists already in Israel were being strongly encouraged to return home.
With the announcement five days later that Israel would shut down all cultural establishments and attractions as well cafes and restaurants, there was little left to interest tourists to remain in the country.
As a result of these measures, the number of flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport were drastically reduced, with several airlines cancelling their routes to Israel entirely.
In an effort to clarify the guidelines on travel and residency for Israelis, foreign residents and visitors, and to get a clearer understanding of how these orders are being implemented and what they mean, Haaretz spoke with Dr. Asher Salmon, head of the department of international relations at the Health Ministry.
How does a foreign citizen in Israel determine whether the place they live is approved by the government as suitable to stay in?
Let me begin by saying that we are doing the maximum in order to have the minimum of foreign citizens around. With a small delay, we are creating detailed guidelines and translating them to English. And they will be published soon.
But people are having to decide right now whether or not to get onto planes – people who are in Israel, or those who are overseas and want to return to Israel...
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In Israel, there is a hotline – a Health Ministry hotline they can call for clarification [*5400, or 08-6241010; lines open 8 A.M.-11 P.M.]. And for overseas people who are not yet in Israel, they have to come to their local Israeli consulate.
But we do not want people who are not citizens or who are not residents to come to Israel for unnecessary reasons. And we aren’t there now but we may get to a point where we won’t allow anybody to come here.
[Under the rules that start Thursday, March 12], everybody who is not an Israeli resident and wants to enter Israel must contact their local Israeli embassy to prove they have the proper isolation facility, get the documents that we are asking for, and sign a paper about it. Then they will give it to us to approve it, and then we will allow them to come here.
For the people who are coming to the border anyway, the immigration services – who are not happy to do it – would question them and would have to have sufficient evidence that they know what to do and have a place to be.
What will the “sufficient evidence” consist of?
They need to show a current address, which should be a valid address – and we are working on a mechanism to check it and validate it. And they need to show that they know what they need to do, and are willing to do it. This will be used mostly for humanitarian reasons: If we see it is being abused, we will close the border completely.
Let’s say you are a student here, at a university or a yeshiva. Do you want these people to leave the country as well?
No. I am not asking anyone to leave. I am talking about people who are planning to come in. I’m not chasing anyone out unless they break the rules. We’re not going to deport people just because we have the coronavirus here. Regarding students who are here: I am in constant discussion with the universities and the foreign student authorities. As long as they do what they have to do and behave properly, they can stay.
But I have to say, we may reach the point where we are going to close the universities – that can happen as well. That’s a different story. (UPDATE: Since this interview took place, the Israeli government announced that all university classes would be moved online.)
They need to follow the same criteria as Israelis: Avoid public gatherings, practice hygiene, report any development of suspicious symptoms. As long as they do this, fine. We’re not going to grab up people in the street and send them away.
So, at this point, foreign students – even if they are students living in a dormitory and might share a room or a bathroom ... you aren’t saying they have to leave?
No, there is no point – they’ve already been here for weeks or for months; they are no different from me or you. This has nothing to do with nationality; it just has to do with exposure. As long as you are not in a risk group, it is not a problem. … University and yeshiva students who are already here are just like any other Israeli: They carry as much risk as the Israelis who are with them in the dormitories. I guess some are planning to fly home for Pesach [Passover]. If they do, I am not sure we are going to allow them back. We’ll see.
They may not have flights to take for Passover...
I still believe there will be some traffic between Israel and the world – but yes, it will not be easy. I can’t say for certain, because it’s not clear if things will develop or not to the point where they will be allowed back again. If someone has his own apartment, it’s easier to see it happening. But yeshiva bochurs [students] living five in a room? We’re not sure.
What about tourists who are here and staying in hotels? Is somebody going to check on people in hotels, or will they be left alone?
We are very unhappy about it, but we realistically understand that they are here and we aren’t going to kick them out. We are hopeful they will leave the country in the next few days. But we are not going to allow new tourists to come. … We are expecting these short duration tourists to finish their plans and to leave the country as soon as possible. But we are not going to hunt people down and chase them to the airport.
I’ve spoken to people flying from the U.S. and other places since the new rules came out on Monday. There is no government representative or information being distributed to incoming tourists saying this is happening...
The instructions only go into effect on Thursday [March 12]. So basically, if you’re an American citizen and there is no evidence you were in contact with a validated case, you will be allowed in. Most of the American citizens are allowed in till tomorrow morning; it’s kind of an interim period. It’s not good, we aren’t happy about it, but we couldn’t just kick everybody out in a second. It doesn’t work that way.
With five confirmed cases from the AIPAC policy conference earlier this month, why are hundreds of attendees now back in Israel but not in quarantine?
We were in contact with AIPAC and we sent AIPAC attendees an email. I thought we should have asked all of them to be in quarantine. But now we are two weeks after. I think we are going to see two or three more cases, and that will be the end of the “AIPAC event.”
Israelis overseas who have tickets to return within the next two weeks: Should they come back and self-quarantine or wait it out? Extend their stay abroad until they don’t have to anymore?
There is no point in staying overseas if you are planning to come back in the next two weeks. If you are an Israeli and you want to come back home – come back home and quarantine here. Whatever happens, we are going to ask you to quarantine.
That sounds like you think these orders will remain in place for a long time...
I don’t know. No one knows how things are going to develop here.
People will have been planning to make aliyah on certain timelines. There are Nefesh B’Nefesh flights for immigrants scheduled. Has all immigration to Israel been put on hold?
We haven’t canceled any aliyah plans. The numbers aren’t extremely high. My main demand to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry is to give every immigrant a real apartment to live in and not a hotel.
Can Israelis forget about planning any kind of vacation for Passover? Even to a country that doesn’t have the coronavirus?
No one should go anywhere in the world right now. We believe the best practice for a healthy individual is not to do any kind of unnecessary travel.
Even domestic travel? Staying in a hotel in Israel – Eilat, for example?
That’s a very delicate issue, I’m not going to comment on it. Let’s just say I’m not going to take my family to a hotel in Eilat on Pesach. Actually, I was scheduled to travel with my whole family to a very important family event, and we canceled.
Speaking of events, what about life cycle events: weddings, funerals, other large gatherings?
We are not telling people to call off weddings or funerals. We may get to the point where we will have to limit the number of participants in a wedding. So far, we have not called for the cancellation of any events with numbers below 2,000. But we may do it. Maybe even in the next few days. (Update: On March 14, the government announced that all event halls hosting weddings and other celebrations would be closed, and that gatherings of more than 10 people would not be permitted to take place.)
Is there any chance we will have to do what Italy is doing – put the whole country in quarantine? Lock it down?
God forbid! Everything we are doing is in order to avoid a situation like this. Italy is totally out of control. Italy can’t even provide basic health care to serious cases. Italy had a total crash of intensive care units and ventilation systems. We saw the numbers yesterday – today it’s even worse.
What about movement in and out of the Palestinian Authority?
Bethlehem still requires a quarantine of 14 days. For now there’s a closure till tomorrow, and so far we haven’t imposed a total closure after tomorrow. It’s a very delicate and sensitive humanitarian issue, with so many Palestinians working in Israel. But the situation in the West Bank till today is only one confirmed case out of Bethlehem – and as long as it stays like that, we are going to let everyone come to work. If we lose control, we will see what we have to do.
Apart from commercial flights and border crossings, what about private jets that want to land in Israel? Or yachts and other boats?
We are going to close down everything, because we want to create a total social disassociation – to avoid outside contact as much as possible, even from healthy people.
What about talk of the summer and warm weather improving things and making the virus recede?
We can’t rely on any of it. We are aware of the theories, the different models. We know what happened with previous coronavirus infections, and we really hope it is going to be reduced dramatically in the hotter months – but we can’t base our plans on it. We just don’t know.
Do you have a response to criticism in the Israeli media that the Health Ministry’s measures are too extreme – that this is overkill, that this is not worth the damage to the economy?
I think these comments may soon be replaced by other criticism saying that we didn’t do enough. We’re not going to be motivated by the media and the opinions of people who don’t have responsibility, don’t have all the information – and in some cases don’t have the knowledge. Let them enjoy having their airtime and they can say whatever they think about it.
What is clear to us is that – with the exception of two cases – until today, we have been able to avoid community-based spreading. That’s very important. We are still dealing with quite a large number of cases, but the vast majority of them, to date, are people who came from abroad, or were in contact with [people from abroad].
It’s not that we think we will be able to shut down massive spreading forever. But the more time we gain, the better.