Netanyahu Halts Flights to Israel Until Emergency Coronavirus Measures Passed

Israelis returning home say some were not checked for fever or coronavirus symptoms, and were allowed to return to their homes in taxis rather than being taken by the army to quarantine facilities

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Israelis who returned from Newark Airport leaving the Ben-Gurion Airport terminal, April 11, 2020.
Israelis who returned from Newark Airport leaving the Ben-Gurion Airport terminal, April 11, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Saturday evening that all flights to Israel will be canceled until emergency measures are passed allowing the IDF’s Home Front command to transfer all incoming travelers to supervised isolation facilities.

Netanyahu said that Israel-bound planes that are already in the air will be allowed to land, but all traffic will then be halted. The policy would remain in place even after lockdown is lifted.

The government blocked the move in a Knesset discussion on Sunday morning, allowing flights to continue arriving in Israel. The government decided that all incoming passengers will have to be quarantined in an isolation facility – a policy that was already in place, but not enforced. 

The prime minister’s decision and subsequent government discussion follows the return of about 70 Israelis who landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Saturday morning from New Jersey, and were sent to their homes in taxicabs without face masks. Passengers on the flight said that when the plane landed, a Health Ministry representative boarded the plane and instructed them to self-isolate for the next 14 days.

One passenger said no one took his temperature, and a few passengers walked around the airport without any protective gear. The passengers signed declarations promising to self-isolate, but said no one collected the forms. They were instructed to quarantine themselves, even though Netanyahu had said earlier this month that anyone flying into Israel would be taken to an official isolation facility immediately upon landing.

“The right thing to do is to reduce the number of arrivals as much as possible and to send all returning [Israelis] to isolation facilities,” the Health Ministry said in a statement, adding that Magen David Adom personnel take the temperatures of all arriving passengers and ask them if they have any of the common symptoms of COVID-19 immediately upon their arrival.

One arriving passenger, Idan Lieberman, said the situation at the airport was in disarray. “No one took my temperature, not here and not in the United States either,” he said. “No one asked me where I was headed, nothing. It’s a disgrace. I don’t think I’m sick, but who can tell who had been sick?”

Another passenger, who asked not to be named, said he had called a day in advance to check on his ride from the airport and was told that the Home Front Command would pick him up there. “As you can see, the Home Front Command isn’t here,” he said.

Another passenger said that he chose to take a taxi home. “I was in the United States for five months already and I’m not afraid to infect the driver, since I assume I picked up the coronavirus during my stay, and it’s already passed,” he said. He added that he could have requested a ride from a relative, “but I was afraid of infecting them because maybe I’m sick, so I decided to take a cab.”

Danny Sapir, a taxi driver who picked up one of the passengers, said he has no choice but to work. “This 170-shekel ($48) fare to Tel Aviv is worth it for me, because there’s no work. I drive with the windows open, spray [disinfectant] every few minutes, use hand sanitizer, but in the end you don’t know who you’re driving.” Sapir said he self-isolated for two weeks after driving a passenger with the coronavirus, “and now I’m back. Without the airport I have no work.”

A small number of passengers, including a family that reported having been in the Dominican Republic, were to be taken to a hotel in Tiberias that is being used as a quarantine facility after saying they did not have a place where they could isolate for two weeks. 

“It’s a lot safer in Israel than it is in the United States,” one of the passengers said, adding: “I find it hard to believe that people would lie about having a place to self-isolate, everyone understands the importance of the matter.”

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said “Interior Minister Arye Dery and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich gave approval in principle to operate a daily United Airlines flight between Israel and the United States. Upon landing, responsibility for the passengers is transferred to the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command.”

United Airlines has been operating one scheduled flight each day into Ben-Gurion International Airport, after receiving approval from the Interior, Health and Transportation Ministries. According to an Israel Airports Authority official, between Wednesday evening and Saturday evening, an additional six approved commercial flights landed at the airport, as did a number of private flights. The Health Ministry said in a statement that its recommendations “are very clear: It is important to reduce the number of incoming flights as much as possible.”

Emergency regulations approved by the cabinet on April 2 specify that anyone returning to Israel is to be placed in a government-run quarantine facility immediately upon arrival unless an “official authority” – a Health Ministry or Home Front Command representative stationed at the airport – has been persuaded that they can self-isolate at home or in another location. In practice, the state makes do with a signed declaration from each passenger saying they can isolate at home. Only those people who say they cannot are brought to an official quarantine facility. The police enforce home self-isolation, and senior law enforcement officials claim that officers visit 95 percent of Israelis who have returned from abroad to verify that they are not violating quarantine.

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