Three Loopholes at Israel’s Airport Let Delta Variant Spread

Lax enforcement, delayed COVID tests, electronic bracelets languishing in warehouses: Israel talks tough on unauthorized travel to high-risk countries, but the flights keep coming in

Arriving passengers at Ben-Gurion International Airport
Arriving passengers at Ben-Gurion International AirportCredit: Hadas Parush

Almost a year and a half after the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Israeli government has decided the time has come to appoint a supervisor for the main entrance to Israel – Ben-Gurion International Airport, which has turned out to be the country’s Achilles’ Heel.

At the outset of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced the appointment of Ronny Numa, the retired general who was the project manager for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak in the Haredi community, as the new COVID commissioner for Ben-Gurion Airport.

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Bennett’s decision came a week after the coronavirus testing system for arriving passengers broke down, letting hundreds of people into Israel untested. At the same time, the number of confirmed cases of COVID is rising by the day, and some of them have been found to have the delta variant of the virus, previously known as the Indian variant.

These are the three issues Numa will have to face on his first day on the job:

Israelis flouting travel ban on “red” countries

At the beginning of May, the previous government approved Health Ministry regulations banning travel by Israelis to a number of countries with especially high rates of coronavirus infection. So far, the government hasn't imposed any sanctions or enforced the rules against those who violated them.

According to the regulations, an Israeli citizen may travel to one of the countries on the “red” list only if they live there permanently, or if they have approval from the exceptions committee of the Population and Immigration Authority in the Interior Ministry. In the request for approval from the committee, a person must note the reason for the trip to the banned country – for example, for a humanitarian or life-saving reason. But it is also possible to mark: “Other” and provide an explanation and supporting documents for the request.

It seems the committee is only for show. On the list of countries today are Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Russia. There are no direct flights to most of these countries, so to reach them Israelis need to change planes in a third country, which is not on the “red” list, providing a loophole. The loophole works on the return, too: An Israeli can spend weeks in one of the banned countries, and when they return they can take a connecting flight through a third country and arrive in Israel without having to go into isolation.

An emergency services worker disinfects an area near Savyolovsky railway station in Moscow, Russia.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

But even for the countries Israelis can fly to directly, such as Russia, it seems there is no enforcement – and anyone can fly there without any scrutiny.

Data provided by the Population and Immigration Authority show that since the cabinet added Russia to the list of forbidden destinations on June 1, and through June 24, the exceptions committee has turned down 2,200 requests by Israelis to enter Russia – and approved only 557 requests.

But during the same time period, 34 flights left Israel for Moscow and Saint Petersburg with 3,537 passengers. Russia is also a connection destination for other countries, but even if we take this into account, it is clear that not all of these passengers continued on. Another indication of the persistent travel to Russia is the two-to-three daily El Al and Aeroflot flights to Russia and back. If the demand wasn’t there, they would quickly be taken off the schedule.

The Health Ministry said: “If citizens travel to these countries through a connecting flight, this is of course an improper and illegal action that endangers them, their family and their community. Every one of us has personal responsibility. In addition, the issue of enforcement is in the hands of the Israel Police.”

In response to a question from Haaretz concerning enforcing the regulations, the Population and Immigration Authority admitted that “there is no way to know where people are going to and from where they are coming.” Most of the passengers passing through Ben-Gurion go through the border control points without any interaction with an inspector, as everything is done digitally.

Isolation orders delayed by bottleneck in airport testing

Passengers who are fully vaccinated and return from overseas are required to take a coronavirus test less than 72 hours before their flight and an additional test at the airport on landing. While unvaccinated arriving passengers who land in Israel are required to leave the airport directly into isolation, vaccinated passengers have no such restriction.

Vaccinated people are required to enter isolation only if the test they took at the airport comes out positive. Until then, a long time can pass, often more than 24 hours – during which they can spread the virus.

COVID testing at Ben-Gurion AirportCredit: Hadas Parush

When the Omega company ran the coronavirus testing compound at the airport for incoming passengers, the system worked smoothly, and most people received their results within eight hours. In a highly criticized move, the Health Ministry decided to end its contract with Omega and two weeks ago brought in a new company, Femi Premium, to do the testing.

Omega used a lab it set up at the airport for its testing, because it understood that speedy results were critical. But things changed with the switch to Femi. Today, passengers sometimes receive their results only after 36 hours.

Unlike Omega, Femi doesn’t have its own labs but uses the services of three labs approved by the Health Ministry. Two of these labs are located in the south in Be’er Sheva and Omer. In order to make money off its investment, Femi has to wait until enough coolers with enough test tubes are ready to send off for testing – and even then, the trip takes a long time, especially at rush hour.

From May 1 through June 16, 139 travelers who had been vaccinated entered Israel and tested positive for COVID at the airport. If the test results take days, another solution will need to be found to prevent vaccinated passengers from moving around freely before they’re officially cleared.

No possibility of enforcing isolation without technological supervision

Arriving passengers who have not been vaccinated are required to enter isolation for two weeks immediately upon leaving the airport. Do they do it? According to police data concerning all the violations of isolation rules in the past two months, at least some of those who returned from overseas did not go into isolation. In May, the police issued 156 tickets for violating isolation requirements, while in April they issued 253 such fines – and another 5,880 warning tickets.

The new law on technological supervision of isolation was drafted months ago and was finally approved by the previous Knesset in March. The law gives the government the authority to require arriving passengers to wear an electronic monitor while they are in isolation; if they refuse, they will be sent to a hotel for a supervised isolation. Even though the law was passed by the Knesset, the cabinet hasn't yet moved to implement it. That is why for over three months after the bill was passed into law, people required to enter isolation do not wear the electronic monitors. For now, the enforcement relies on surprise visits by the police and inspectors.

A new arrival to Ben-Gurion Airport wearing an electronic bracelet in March.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

About 10,000 electronic bracelets are waiting in the warehouse of SuperCom, the company that won the competitive bidding tender to supply the monitoring – and they are ready for immediate use. In addition, the company said it is able to manufacture another 1,000 new electronic bracelets a day, if needed. Now all that is left to do is implement the law in practice.

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