Israelis Delayed at Moscow Airport; Russia Says Israel Denied Entry to Thousands

Jerusalem believes that the detention was Russia's way to convey a message to Israel ahead 'consular consultations' slated for Thursday

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Vladimir Putin welcomes Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, September 12, 2019.
Vladimir Putin welcomes Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, September 12, 2019.Credit: Shamil Zhumatov/Pool photo via AP
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Dozens of Israeli tourists and businessmen were delayed for several hours at Moscow airport's passport control on Wednesday, prompting Israel's Foreign Ministry to announce it was looking into the matter.

All of those delayed at the airport were let into the country by Wednesday afternoon.

An Israeli delegation is expected to arrive in Russia on Thursday for "consular consultations," which were scheduled in advance. Jerusalem believes that the detention of Israeli tourists at the Moscow airport is Russia's way to convey a message to Israel ahead of the talks.

Russian authorities have complained to Israel recently over the treatment of Russian tourists at Ben-Gurion Airport. A Russian source told Haaretz the issue was "troubling," adding that Russian citizens miss out on their vacations despite visa agreements between the two countries.

In 2019, Israel denied entry to thousands of Russian citizens. The Russian Embassy in Israel said that over 5,700 tourists were barred entry by Israel this year, with Israeli authorities reporting similar numbers.

"Every day, about 20 tourists who come to Israel with money and an organized tour are being sent back to Russia," the embassy told Haaretz.

According to Israel's Population and Immigration Authority, in 2018 over 2,000 Russian nationals were detained at Ben Gurion Airport's detention facility, including dozens of minors.

Despite bilateral agreements signed in 2008 granting visa-free entry to nationals of both countries, Israel is concerned some Russians and other visitors from the former Soviet Union might enter as tourists but remain in Israel illegally.

According to the authority, sources familiar with the data said that among the Russian nationals barred entry to Israel were asylum seekers and work immigrants, adding Russian citizens, whose tourist visa expired, are currently residing illegally in Israel.

In addition, the authority said that Israel denies entry on an individual basis. "A decision is made in accordance with a preliminary inquiry. Tens of thousands of Russian nationals are allowed to enter Israel," the authority said.

Israel's Channel 12 News reported on Tuesday that businessmen were being detained at the Moscow airport.

The issue of detaining Israeli nationals at Moscow airport will be discussed by Israeli and Russian consular teams on Thursday in Jerusalem, Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry and Population and Immigration Authority officials will meet with a delegation of senior officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry and Immigration Authority.

"The Israeli representatives will ask their Russian counterparts to explain why Israeli nationals were detained for hours at the airport," the statement read.

"The consular dialogue, which routinely takes place once a year, is meant to discuss relevant consular issues and come up with diplomatic solutions.

"Israel will put an emphasis on the Issachar affair, and will ask to work in cooperation with Russia to assure that Russian and Israeli tourists and businessmen who seek to visit the other country could do so," the statement added.

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said that "Israel sees its relations with Russia to be of high importance. The direct discourse in a variety of issues, including consular ones, is an important tool to strengthen ties between both countries.

"I've instructed the ministry to try and reach a swift solution on the matter of detaining Israeli tourists and businessmen, and stress our expectation for the quick return of Naama Issachar to Israel," Katz said.

Two weeks ago, Katz met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Rome. During their meeting, the Israeli foreign minister expressed hope that the request to pardon Issachar will be granted. In addition, Katz and Lavrov discussed the entry of Israeli tourists and businessmen to Russia and vice versa.

Earlier Wednesday, the ministry said it "is in regular contact with Russian authorities regarding consular issues, including tourist and business entry procedures. We are looking into the issue of recent refusals and whether they indicate a change of state entry policy. Our aim is to allow Israeli tourists and businessmen to enter Russia as usual, and especially when both countries have an interest in encouraging bilateral tourism and trade."

This comes amid rising tentions between the two countries after an Israeli woman, Naama Issachar, was sentenced in October to seven and a half years in prison on drug-related charges, after she was detained also at the Moscow airport.

Associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the premier had stated he is holding talks to bring Issachar back home, adding that the process might take some time.

The associates stressed that Netanyahu is highly committed to the matter, and will not back down [until progress is made].

Among the detainees at Moscow airport was Yedioth Aharonot journalist Itamar Eichner, who said he had been detained to prevent him from covering the Issachar affair.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he plans to visit Israel in January next year, to attend the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem. Putin also said in September that Russia is paying a "high attention" to developing mutually beneficial relations with Israel.

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