Opinion |

Israeli Government Lied About Shutting Down the Airport Over COVID

נרי ירקוני
Neri Yarkoni
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removes his face mask before giving a speech at a ceremony to celebrate the first commercial flight from Dubai to Israel, Novemner 26, 2020.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removes his face mask at Ben Gurion Airport during a ceremony to celebrate the first commercial flight from Dubai to Israel, Novemner 26, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
נרי ירקוני
Neri Yarkoni

The queues and overcrowding we are seeing at Israel’s international airport, Ben Gurion, are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the government’s negligence and obfuscation in dealing with air travel at this time of pandemic.

On several occasions, the prime minister has stated that during the first wave of the coronavirus, “our success was amazing. We closed the skies and our borders very early” (July 7); or “here in Israel we were the first in the world to realize the danger, thus closing the skies” (September 13).

But that is not the case. Flights to and from Israel never were suspended. The only restriction was to bar foreign nationals from entering Israel (excluding Jews, which is a crucial detail). Activity did decline, for two reasons: the airlines either halted all flights to Israel or decreased their number, because demand had diminished and in order to reduce their damage from the epidemic, and because Israelis were denied entry into many countries because they, or we, were “red” countries, with high infection rates.

With those constraints in mind — Israel allowed unlimited flights to countries that did permit entry.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and members of his cabinet check a coronavirus testing booth at Ben Gurion Airport, December 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to the Airports Authority, in February over 10,000 flights landed in, or took off from, Ben Gurion airport, carrying more than two million passengers. The first coronavirus cases in Israel were identified late that month.

On February 26, after flights to and from China had been suspended, I said in an interview on Channel 12 News that Israel’s disadvantage as an “island” state had become an advantage during the epidemic. “If we close Ben Gurion airport, the only entry portal into Israel, we won’t have coronavirus here,” I said.

Even someone like me, who knows nothing about medicine in general or epidemiology in particular, could immediately understand, at the onset of the pandemic, something the government has not grasped to this day (or if it did, nothing was done about it, which is much more serious).

In March, there were 5,300 flights to and from Ben Gurion, carrying over one million passengers. During March, the number of infected people in Israel rose from 10 to 5,358.

Towards Passover, yeshiva students from the U.S. began to fly in: about 17,000 arrived, some of whom had boarded planes after contracting COVID-19. (The flights themselves were less dangerous than other enclosed spaces: the air on planes is refreshed at a high rate, more so than in any office, restaurant, bus or train. The problem isn’t the flight itself, it’s that infected people are being imported.)

April was the slowest month in terms of flights. “Only” a quarter of a million people passed through the airport, despite the lockdown.

Since then, the number of flights has steadily risen, bringing with it more and more infected people, including from Uman and Dubai. September saw 700,000 people pass through Ben Gurion airport, with 750,000 more in October.

Crowding at Ben-Gurion Airport, Dec. 13, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But if you lie to the public in September, saying that “the skies are closed”, you have no choice but to lie again on October 15, when the government ceremoniously announced that “the skies are open.”

The dereliction of duty keeps escalating. Not only was the airport not closed (with lies told twice), now they’re allowing thousands (!) of Israelis to fly daily to countries which are apparently colored a very dark red in terms of health, but which look shiny green in terms of political interests.

This is no longer negligence. This is ostensibly criminal malfeasance. Clause 218 of the penal code explicitly stipulates that committing a negligent act that could spread a potentially lethal disease carries a three-year prison term; doing so with intent carries a seven-year prison sentence. The persons bearing responsibility, even criminal, for this are the people enabling the flights to Dubai.

Under these circumstances, Netanyahu’s boasting about being the first in the world to recognize the danger and suspend flights are an admission of guilt. In a well-governed state such a person would be investigated for, ostensibly, knowingly committing a crime. We are all paying and will continue to pay a heavy price for this conduct, which began with dereliction, continued with ignoring the danger, culminating in full awareness of the danger to which the public is exposed.

Paradoxically, the overcrowding at the airport is of some help. It contributes, albeit temporarily, to a reduction in the number of flights and to a drop in the “index of coronavirus importation”, a product of Israeli tourists living it up in Dubai. This includes dozens of journalists (whose trips are funded by a person who apparently wishes to reward them with a bonus). Within a day or two a technical local solution will be found to overcome the overcrowding, and the problem will then only worsen. There will be more flights, and the import of the virus will further increase.

All that’s left now, in view of the dangerous recklessness at the country’s entry portal, and the news that a new coronavirus mutation has been detected (according to the British health minister last week), is to send best wishes and wait for the third lockdown, which will happen despite the arrival of the vaccine.

Neri Yarkoni is an attorney, an IDF colonel (res.), a former combat pilot and the IDF Central Command’s attorney, and a former director of the Civil Aviation Authority.

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