Israelis Stranded Abroad Furious as Government Restricts Their Ability to Fly Home

With the airport shut due to COVID, Israelis in the United States are finding it difficult to get back to Tel Aviv – even if they have an election to run in next month

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Outside the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport last month.
Outside the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion Airport last month.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

Rebecca (who did not wish to share her last name) flew back to her hometown in Florida last December when a family member became seriously ill. But the Israeli-American citizen and her Israeli boyfriend are now among the thousands of Israelis stranded overseas because of Ben-Gurion Airport’s ongoing closure.

“Israel has basically abandoned us,” she told Haaretz this week.

The Israeli government closed the country’s borders on January 25, giving just 24 hours notice of its decision. While the initiative – meant to halt the import of new coronavirus variants, potentially threatening Israel’s hugely successful vaccination campaign – was supposed to be in effect for less than a week, the closure has since been extended twice. The next potential reopening date is March 6.

While a few rescue flights have been able to land, those on board needed special permission to return, given by a governmental “exceptions committee.” Until this week, all travelers were being forced to quarantine in designated hotels for 10 days. Entry to the country is currently being restricted to 200 travelers a day.

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All that Israeli citizens stranded across the world can do is express their frustration – which they are doing, frequently, on social media.

Because the Israeli government has extended the border closures “super-last minute,” Tel Aviv resident Rebecca, 28, said flights have been continually canceled. “We were unable to plan for anything,” she said.

Rebecca is now set to remain in the United States for another month, but her boyfriend needs to get back to Israel as soon as possible. The whole situation has been “frustrating” and “just a mess,” she said. “His flight has been canceled three times, and his [U.S.] tourist visa is about to expire. Also, our apartment lease in Tel Aviv is gonna expire.”

While her boyfriend is scheduled to return this week, Rebecca said she was still “extremely nervous” given the recent cap on daily entries.

“I’m also extremely frustrated that, at the moment, Israel isn’t recognizing foreign COVID-19 vaccinations. So, while I have been vaccinated in the United States, I won’t be exempt from quarantine upon landing – even though it’s the exact same vaccine as what they’re using in Israel,” she said.

‘An opportunity’

After she gave birth to her first child last September, Israeli-American Shayna Muller, 30, decided to fly to the United States and spend her maternity leave with family. Her Israeli husband was able to make the trip as well and worked remotely. They left Israel on November 9 with a 2-month-old baby girl in tow and were supposed to return on January 31.

While they were in the U.S., though, they all ended up contracting the coronavirus. “The upside is that while we were here, we got antibodies. The downside is that now we’re stuck here,” Muller said.

“We were thinking of doing a rescue flight, but were nervous because we didn’t want to get sent to a coronavirus hotel,” she added.

While she’s seeing the extended family time as “an opportunity,” Muller had planned to be back in Israel for February 1 – which would have given her a full month to settle in before returning to work.

David, Shayna and baby Emma Muller after arriving in the United States last November. Credit: Shayna Muller

“At first it was very frustrating, but my mom got very sick with the coronavirus – she was in the hospital. If I wasn’t here, I would have been even more nervous in Israel,” she said. “Everything happens for a reason and it sucks that I didn’t get a month of transition. But you know what? People are dying.”

Muller said she thinks the airport closure was “a good thing” given the new variants, but took issue with the fact that, initially, Israel’s rescue flights were only through El Al.

“We had tickets on Delta, so basically what you’re doing is forcing people to rebook their tickets for so much money on El Al,” she said. “They were having so few flights and they were so expensive that some people financially can’t do that.”

After the U.S. State Department reportedly threatened to ban Israeli planes from landing on U.S. soil, Israel restored authorization for United and Delta airlines to operate rescue flights as well.

Muller and her family are now scheduled to fly home on March 3. Her only concerns are last-minute changes and the possibility of being sent to a quarantine hotel, despite having recovered from COVID-19.

An election fight

Among the Israeli citizens currently struggling to get home is former Knesset member Nachman Shai, who’s also running in the March 23 election (he’s eighth on the Labor Party’s slate). He’s been teaching in the United States for the past 18 months: first at Emory University in Georgia, and then Duke University in North Carolina, where he’s a visiting professor of political science. (He was representing the Israel Institute, which aims to ensure that students have access to classes about Israel during their time on campus.)

Nachman Shai in the Knesset five year ago.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Shai’s original plan had been to be back in Israel next week. However, after submitting his request to the relevant governmental committee, he was denied permission to enter. “They didn’t give me any explanation,” he said. “I’m probably the only Israeli who’s out of the country at this stage that would like to come and run for the Knesset. It’s an undeniable right, I believe.”

He added: “This is Israel 2021: total balagan,” using the Hebrew term for mess. “No one will give you an answer.”

As a former government official, it would have been easy for Shai – who’s also received the COVID-19 vaccine – to use his connections to get his request approved. But he insists on going through the proper channels.

“Maybe I’m spoiled now. I live in America; there are 300 million people and there’s no [use of connections] because it’s a big country. I don’t know anyone – I don’t even ask myself whether there’s a shortcut,” he said. “Why do I need my contacts to do something that’s reasonable?” he asked. “I have full rights to come to Israel.”

The Labor candidate said he didn’t see “any logic” in what the government is doing. To truly consider people’s requests to fly back home, the committee would have to work “24/7 with hundreds of people, not two or three,” he said.

“I feel the government betrayed its citizens. The fact is, the public doesn’t believe the government any longer,” he charged. “There’s a civil revolt in Israel right now.”

An election flight

Last week, Israel negotiated the return of an Israeli woman who had crossed into Syria in the Golan Heights and was arrested by the Syrian authorities. The woman landed in Israel last Friday, flown in on a private Israeli jet sent to retrieve her from Moscow. In a tweet that day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would always act to return its citizens.

“Except the thousands of us who are stuck abroad right now because you closed the borders without warning for over a month,” Rebecca tweeted in response. “These are such empty words.”

Rebecca, who asked that her surname not be published.

She told Haaretz: “Israel is currently doing the exact opposite” of what Netanyahu boasted about. “It’s slamming the door in our faces. Honestly, it seems to me like a cynical ploy to keep those of us who are stuck abroad, and rightfully angry about it, from voting – specifically, from voting out the current leadership,” Rebecca said. “They let in foreign judokas to participate in an international judo competition and exempted them from quarantine. Clearly, this isn’t just about the coronavirus.”

If Israeli citizens who live in Israel aren’t allowed to vote because they aren’t allowed to return home, Rebecca added, “that’s not a free and fair election.”

Former lawmaker Shai doesn’t rule out the possibility that the government has political reasons for preventing people from entering the country, either.

“Maybe it’s not just a technical failure, maybe there is something deeper. I would raise questions about this,” he said. “It’s not just people knocking on the door because they want to come home. They want to participate in the election, they want to impact the future of the State of Israel through voting.”

He added: “The major question is: Who’s in charge here? Unbelievable!”

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