First Israelis Arrive Home After Being Stranded Abroad Due to COVID Cap on Arrivals

Many were surprised to be allowed onto flight as Israel's coronavirus rules changed rapidly after numerous cancellations

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
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Travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday.
Travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Passengers arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport from Newark Sunday went home with a pink paper bracelet and nothing more.

For the past several weeks, government officials have been discussing requiring returning travelers to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet if they choose to quarantine at home rather than at a hotel. But Sunday’s arrivals had to do nothing more than fill out an online form saying where they planned to quarantine, since legislation authorizing the electronic bracelets hasn’t yet been passed.

The returning travelers were of all ages. Some had left Israel to ski, others to work, others to visit a sick relative. Some were Israelis living abroad who had come back to visit family here after an unintentionally long separation.

Reut Keidar, who works for a startup company in Ramat Gan, was finally coming home after a business trip to San Francisco that had dragged on for two months rather than the planned two weeks. She had previously made reservations on six flights that were canceled.

“Each time, I did a coronavirus test and was approved by the exceptions committee,” she said, referring to the government panel that decided which Israelis would be allowed to return during the weeks when Ben-Gurion Airport was effectively closed. “But then they would change the rules, and flights were canceled because of it.”

Keidar, who agreed to be interviewed moments after hugging her husband for the first time in many weeks, said she boarded her flight from San Francisco to Newark convinced that she would wind up stuck on America’s east coast rather than being allowed to board the flight home.

“But when I arrived at the airport, they suddenly told me there was no more exceptions committee,” she said. “The rules had changed between me and the man who was ahead of me in line.”

Even the airlines couldn’t keep up with the frequent rule changes, she added.

Upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, all passengers were required to take a coronavirus test. They were promised the results within 24 hours.

Yedidya, a software engineer who has lived in the United States for the last six years, came to Israel for his brother’s wedding. Since he has already had the virus, the Health Ministry told him he had to take an antibody test in order to leave quarantine. But when he tried to find out how to do that, the person manning the ministry’s hotline had no answer.

Though his flight had been booked for this date, the fact that he was actually able to board it was due to the sudden abolition of the exceptions committee. He had previously applied to the committee for permission to come but was refused.

“It took them about three minutes to tell me no,” he recalled. Since his brother-in-law knows MK Bezalel Smotrich ( of the Religious Zionism party), “we tried to use our connections with him, but he said a wedding isn’t a good enough reason.”

Consequently, when he boarded his flight from Miami to Newark, he wasn’t at all sure he would be able to board his connection to Israel. “I told myself that at worst, I’d be stuck in New York. But in the end, they didn’t ask me anything and I simply boarded the plane.”

Numerous travelers said the exceptions committee, which was abolished on Sunday for all returning Israelis, never responded to their requests at all. One Israeli family that has been living in New York for two and a half years said they applied to the committee twice but never got an answer.

“Instead of feeling excited, we felt pressured,” the wife said. “The week before the flight was nerve-racking. The bracelet they gave us here says ‘Welcome,’ but we really don’t feel like anyone is welcoming us.”

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