How Evangelicals Working in Settlements Bypassed Israel's COVID-19 Entry Ban

Despite most noncitizens being refused entry due to the coronavirus, a phone call to a former lawmaker and an application glossing over a key fact allowed 70 evangelical volunteers to receive visas in August, Haaretz finds

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Evangelical volunteers harvesting Merlot wine grapes for the Tura Winery, in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha, September 23, 2020.
Evangelical volunteers harvesting Merlot wine grapes for the Tura Winery, in the West Bank Har Bracha settlement of Har Bracha, September 23, 2020. Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Two months ago, a group of 70 evangelical volunteers were granted special permission to enter Israel so they could help out with the grape harvest at several settlements in the West Bank.

Neither Hayovel, the organization that represents them, nor the Interior Ministry was willing to explain to Haaretz at the time how these volunteers obtained such permission when most noncitizens have been barred from entering Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

LISTEN: Why did Israel let 70 evangelicals flout its COVID-19 travel ban?

An investigation by Haaretz reveals that the ministry was not fully aware of the nature of the organization when it decided to grant entry to this large Christian group. Israeli politicians who requested visas on behalf of the volunteers hid the fact that they belonged to an evangelical organization, while the Interior Ministry itself didn’t conduct any independent inquiries of its own.

The Haaretz probe also reveals that the volunteers were granted permission to enter Israel on the basis of a special exemption clause, even though it doesn’t appear to be relevant to them.

Under regulations in force since March, only Israeli citizens are allowed to enter the country. Exceptions include foreign spouses and children of Israeli nationals, immigrants coming under the Law of Return, “lone soldiers” (Israeli army volunteers from the Jewish Diaspora), relatives invited to participate in Jewish life cycle ceremonies, volunteers in social welfare programs and foreign “experts.”

In addition, 12,000 yeshiva students and another 5,000 foreign exchange students and participants in Masa educational and social programs (aimed at young Jewish adults) were allowed into the country at the start of the school year.

An aerial view showing evangelical volunteers harvesting Merlot wine grapes for Tura Winery in the West Bank settlement of Har Bracha, September 23, 2020.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

Some Jewish community leaders have criticized Israel for closing its borders to Jews who lack citizenship during the global health crisis.

The decision to grant entry to the evangelical group sparked outrage among Catholic organizations and churches active in Israel, whose requests to bring over volunteers and staffers have repeatedly been rejected since the outbreak of the pandemic.

A month ago, when Haaretz asked Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad to explain how the evangelical group was granted entry in spite of the current ban on non-Israelis, she issued the following response: “Nobody knows what this is about.”

Hayovel Marketing Director Luke Hilton told Haaretz at the time that “several different people in the government” had helped the organization obtain the three-month tourist visas for its volunteers. He would not provide names or any other details. When approached later, Hayovel founder and President Tommy Waller said he had been advised “not to speak to any press at this time.”

Here is how Hayovel was able to obtain these special entry permits, according to information obtained by Haaretz.

Friends in high places?

In mid-August, Waller called former Likud lawmaker Yehudah Glick, a close friend of his, and begged that he help Hayovel obtain the visas lest the current grape harvest on the settlements go to ruin.

Yehudah Glick, center, at the Likud primary in Jerusalem in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Glick, who recently announced his bid to run for president, is active in interfaith dialogue initiatives with evangelical groups. He is best-known for his long-standing campaign to allows Jews to pray on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – a key flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Glick provided Waller with the personal cellphone number of Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director general of the Population and Immigration Authority at the Interior Ministry, and suggested that he call him. Waller took his advice and shortly thereafter the entry visas for Hayovel volunteers were approved.

In response to follow-up questions from Haaretz, Mor-Yosef said on Tuesday, through the ministry spokeswoman, that he was unaware that this was an evangelical group.

When asked whether he had, in fact, misrepresented himself, Waller told Haaretz: “Why would being Christian volunteers matter? Not sure [about] your point. I assure you that there was no deception on our part, or anyone else for that matter.”

Haddad noted that in reaching his decision, Mor-Yosef relied on letters of support from Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Shomron Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan and an official at the Agriculture Ministry responsible for agricultural tourism in the settlements.

Tzachi Hanegbi at a cabinet meeting in March 2020. Credit: מארק ישראל סלם

“Not in any of the letters we received was there any mention of evangelicals,” Haddad said.

In his letter, Dagan, a prominent settler leader, beseeched Mor-Yosef: “Your help is very much needed because hiring Arabs is a security risk.”

Neither the letter from Dagan nor the letter from Hanegbi mentioned that the visas were being requested for an organization by the name of Hayovel. Instead, they referred to an institution called Midreshet Lev Ha’aretz (known in English as The Heartland Institute for Bible Study and Zionist Volunteerism).

The institution’s website indicates that its founder and president is Waller, that its headquarters are in the settlement of Ofra and that its goal is advocating for Israel abroad and fighting “anti-Israel propaganda.” Volunteering for winemakers in the settlements is not included in its list of goals or activities.

Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan at a protest outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, December 2018.Credit: Oren Ben Hakon

‘Expert’ grape pickers

When asked on what grounds the Hayovel volunteers were exempted from the ban on non-Israelis entering the country, Haddad pointed to a paragraph in the ministry’s guidelines that refers to foreign experts. That paragraph states: “A limited number of new experts, defined as requisite for national infrastructure and/or continued functionality of the economy, will be approved. Permission will be granted subject to the recommendation of the relevant government ministry and with the approval of the Foreign Workers’ Administration in the Population and Immigration Authority.”

When asked whether grape pickers could reasonably qualify as “experts,” Haddad conceded that they did not. She insisted, however, that this paragraph could be interpreted as also allowing for non-experts who are engaged in work that enables the “continued functionality of the economy.”

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, farmers in Israel were prohibited from importing foreign workers. Many agricultural cooperatives within the Green Line – Israel’s internationally recognized border – relied on young Israeli volunteers to help pick fruits and vegetables during the spring harvest, when schools and other youth programs were temporarily closed.

Founded 15 years ago, Hayovel has brought some 3,000 Christian volunteers to the West Bank settlements over the years, most of them from the United States. They’re housed on a purpose-built campus on the outskirts of the Har Bracha settlement, near the Palestinian city of Nablus. Some of the volunteers work in the vineyards that belong to the Tura winery in Har Bracha, while others work in the wineries in the nearby settlements of Psagot and Shiloh.

Unlike volunteers on kibbutzim, who receive room and board in exchange for their work, Hayovel volunteers pay for their accommodations, as well as their airfare. The volunteers include entire families with children.

As a matter of principle, Hayovel brings volunteers only to West Bank settlements and is not active at all within the Green Line. According to its mission statement, its goal is to become “a positive voice from Judea and Samaria into the nations – a voice declaring the amazing, restorative things that we were seeing with our own eyes and touching with our own hands.”

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