The cabinet approved Sunday the halting of inbound and outbound flights, beginning at midnight between Monday and Tuesday and lasting until January 31, in an attempt to slow the spread of novel coronavirus variants.
According to the proposal, planes of foreign airlines will not be allowed to land in Israel beginning at midnight between Monday and Tuesday until January 31, when Israel's coronavirus lockdown is meant to end. In addition, exiting the country will be limited to exceptional circumstances.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during the government meeting, "We are ahead of the entire world. No nation has done what we are about to do – we are hermetically sealing the country."
Foreign cargo planes, firefighting planes, and medical emergency flights will be exempt from the restriction on foreign incoming flights. Restrictions will also be placed on Israeli airlines.
Flights will be able to leave Israel for the purposes of overseas medical treatment, legal proceedings, family funerals or relocation. The directors-general of the health and transportation ministries will have the authority to approve exceptional requests due to humanitarian or personal needs, a joint statement from the Health Ministry and Prime Minister's Office said Sunday evening. The new regulations also apply to private planes.
"For the first time," under the ban, Jews would not be allowed to immigrate to Israel, "unless it is a matter of life or death," said Transportation Minister Miri Regev at the meeting.
Now that they have received cabinet approval, the regulations must also be approved by the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee and Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
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"It is important to understand that there will be a difficult legal battle here," said Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri of the proposal on Sunday afternoon.
Nizri said that he unsuccessfully attempted to convince the government to give passengers a 72-hour window to prepare, including to take a coronavirus test. Last week, the government approved regulations requiring all arrivals to Ben-Gurion International Airport to present a negative coronavirus test conducted no more than 72 hours prior to landing. The advance warning, he said, "faced barriers both on the legal and practical levels."
Netanyahu addressed the criticism he faced for allowing planes to continue arriving in and departing from Israel during the pandemic: “Despite the public discourse, we closed the skies in the normal format from April to August,” he said. “Now we’re truly closing, without commercial flights, without anything, despite exceptions.”
Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen of Kahol Lavan said during the cabinet meeting that closing the airport is a “very extreme step” and a violation of basic rights. Despite this, she added that the closure period is “logical,” and that Israel must take advantage of this window to vaccinate more members of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
Netanyahu came to an agreement with the health and transportation ministers over the weekend to bar incoming and outgoing flights from the country for two weeks. Ahead of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that after consulting with the attorney general and Health Ministry officials, he agreed to raise the discussion of limiting flights until the end of the coronavirus lockdown – officially planned for January 31 – even though the ministers of his Kahol Lavan party were not invited to participate in the preliminary discussions on the matter held Saturday night.
Gantz also said that during the cabinet meeting, he intends on demanding “equal enforcement” immediately. At the beginning of the meeting, the defense minister said that he asked the attorney general to examine how to legally act against “leaders of the public that give instructions that counter the regulations.” Despite the lockdown, some Haredi leaders have ordered schools and religious institutions to reopen in violation of the guidelines, even as infection rates soar. Police have carried out little enforcement in ultra-Orthodox enclaves.
According to Gantz, “The lack of enforcement is costing lives – and just because of political interests… the government and Education Ministry are not using their authority that they have under law to close and withhold funds from institutions that are open during the lockdown against the national regulations.”
The Health Ministry announced Saturday that six out of the seven hospitalized pregnant women who underwent genetic testing were found to have coronavirus variant initially identified in the United Kingdom. Leumit Health Maintenance Office CEO Haim Fernandes said last week that 40 to 50 percent of the HMO’s members who were tested were found to be positive for the British variant. “The rate has climbed during a very short time period,” he said. “This means that a tremendous burden has been created in dealing with every test, and the system is stretched to the limit.”
According to Health Ministry data released Sunday morning, 1,306 people have died of COVID-19 in Israel since the beginning of January alone. January has been the month with the highest number of COVID deaths since October, in which 970 Israelis died of the disease; 4,361 people have died of it in Israel since the pandemic began.