‘Unacceptable’: Anger in Israeli Parliament Over COVID Travel Restrictions

Knesset efforts to widen travel criteria for both Israelis and foreign citizens, including ability to travel to ‘red’ countries for life-cycle events, still awaiting official approval despite being backed by lawmakers last week

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A passenger at a near-deserted Ben Gurion Airport last month.
A passenger at a near-deserted Ben Gurion Airport last month.Credit: Eyal Toueg

MK Gilad Kariv clashed with Population and Immigration Authority officials Sunday after learning that they had not implemented decisions his Knesset committee voted on last week to ease restrictions on travel in and out of Israel for family reasons.

On Wednesday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted to permit siblings and second-degree relatives to apply for an exception to travel restrictions to “red” countries for life-cycle events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals.

But at the Sunday hearing, authority officials Roy Cohen and Amnon Shmueli told the committee that several of the decisions voted on last week were still under review and hadn’t been implemented.

“Your behavior is unacceptable,” Kariv (Labor) chided them, saying that they demonstrated a lack of “basic respect” for lawmakers who had approved a “very reasonable and limited” widening of travel criteria for both vaccinated citizens who wish to travel abroad to restricted countries, and vaccinated foreign relatives of Israelis who want to travel to Israel.

The two officials stated that, despite the committee’s vote, while parents who are foreign citizens can enter Israel for a child’s wedding or travel to a “red” country to attend a wedding, neither their brothers, sisters nor grandparents can apply to the government’s exceptions committee to make the trip in either direction.

Similarly, grandchildren are not permitted to travel in or out of Israel to a red country to visit terminally ill grandparents or to attend their funeral.

“If you don’t want to listen to the Knesset, if the opinion of every member of this committee means nothing to you, you will have to lose your authority to decide who comes into the country,” Kariv told them. “Apparently, you don’t understand the principle of dialogue between elected officials and government clerks.”

He threatened to stop approving both changes in the list of countries designated as “red” as well as new Green Pass restrictions as early as Tuesday if the officials did not comply with the committee’s decisions.

Kariv called their stubbornness on easing the restrictions “excessive and disproportionate” in a country that is “not in lockdown – where I just sat in 40 minutes of traffic getting to work and where thousands partied on New Year’s Eve.

Labor lawmaker Gilad Kariv in the Knesset last year.Credit: Noam Moshkovitz / Knesset Spokesperson

“They reflect an extreme lack of recognition of our situation,” he continued. “Health officials are saying that the justification for the travel restrictions is over. So how is it possible for you to think it is justifiable to prevent a grandchild from attending the funeral of their grandfather or to say goodbye to their grandmother before she dies?”

One policy change the committee voted on last week that the officials did say they had implemented was permission for dual-citizen Israelis to apply to travel overseas to “red” countries if they earn their living in those countries, provided they commit to remain abroad for at least 30 days.

But committee member MK Yomtob Kalfon (Yamina) noted the “facts on the ground” had not caught up with the new guidelines. Kalfon, an immigrant from France, said at least 10 people had approached him after applying for such travel, providing the exceptions committee with documentation – and then were turned down.

“There is a huge gap between what is on paper and what is actually happening,” he said.

Shmueli, from the population authority, said that of those who submitted requests for exceptions, only 17 percent had been turned down.

Advocates for immigrants to Israel expressed frustration with the lack of consistency in creating guidelines and the last-minute decision-making.

“We are already two years into this pandemic. At some point, the government has to define the rules before it can make decisions about exceptions,” said former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, head of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Institute for Aliyah Policy & Strategy, decrying what she called “Sylvester over Safta” – New Year’s Eve celebrations prioritized above grandmothers.

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