One Counter at Tel Aviv Airport Decides the Fate of Ukrainians Seeking Refuge in Israel

Israelis seeking to host a Ukrainian must deposit 10,000 shekels; Dozens of people stuck at the airport counter

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
Ukrainian refugees waiting by the counter at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday.
Ukrainian refugees waiting by the counter at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday. Credit: Moti Milrod
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The clerk at the Population and Immigration Authority counter in Ben-Gurion Airport was in despair. It was 9:30 P.M. on Wednesday, half an hour after the flight from Budapest landed and an hour before the flight from Bucharest was due, and dozens of people were waiting tensely in front of the counter, holding checks and bank guarantees and trying to understand how the system works.

“I didn’t start the war in Ukraine,” she told them. “I’m not to blame for your frustration; please calm down. I’m not involved.”

Normally, this counter mainly serves people paying to renew their passport after arriving at the airport and discovering that it has expired. But over the last two days, the money handed over at the counter has served a different purpose – posting guarantees for Ukrainians seeking refuge with relatives and friends in Israel from the fighting in their country.

Under new rules drafted this week, any Israeli seeking to host a Ukrainian whom the Immigration Authority fears might settle in Israel must deposit 10,000 shekels ($3,100) as a guarantee and pledge that the relative will leave the country within a month.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described this as “a Beit Hillel policy,” referring to the Talmudic school known for being more lenient than its rival, Beit Shammai. The people actually coping with this bureaucracy would undoubtedly beg to differ.

Alexey, one of the people waiting, declined to give his last name for fear of harassment by the Immigration Authority. He was waiting for friends from Kyiv – a couple, their three children and a daughter-in-law. All except the daughter-in-law have Israeli passports, but Alexey needed to pay her guarantee.

“This is a disgrace. I don’t mind paying, just let them enter,” he said. “They left home five days ago, the moment the first shells fell on Kyiv. They spent three days on the road from Kyiv to the Ukraine-Hungary border. I’ve been here two hours already, waiting for them to finish interrogating them, so I can pay and leave.”

Even in normal times, Israel gives entering Ukrainians a hard time, since 24 percent of the tourists who have overstayed their visas here are Ukrainians. Between 2018 and 2021, 15,430 Ukrainians were denied entry at Ben-Gurion, more than from any other country. In the week before the war alone, 140 of the 1,124 arriving Ukrainians were denied entry.

During the first five days of the fighting, before the new rules were announced on Monday, 50 of the 303 arriving Ukrainians were barred from entering. Between Monday and Thursday morning, 22 out of 584 arriving Ukrainians were turned away.

Avi was in line waiting for his girlfriend, with whom he lived in Ukraine until the Russian invasion. “Fortunately, I can pay the guarantee, but what about someone who can’t?” he said. “This is a disgrace.”

He left Ukraine on an evacuation flight on February 16. His girlfriend stayed, but later escaped to Hungary, then flew to Israel.

Avi told the clerk there was no need to worry, since he and his girlfriend had tickets to fly to Dubai four days later and both of them plan to return to Ukraine once the fighting ends. In the end, the clerk let her enter without a guarantee, but her visa is only good until the date of their flight to Dubai.

Immigration Authority employees were as confused about the new rules as the Israelis standing in line. Some held screenshots of an article about the rules, others had opinions from immigration lawyers.

“You can’t jerk people around like this,” said Diana, a Hadera resident. “We took a day off from work especially for this and went to the bank to pay the bank guarantee. The clerks didn’t even understand what we wanted.”

She immigrated from Ukraine 34 years ago. Her husband, Alex, came three years ago and is in the process of being naturalized. Alex has a 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage and is trying to get her out of Ukraine. He and Diana were at the airport to pay her guarantee in advance.

“Israel’s behavior is very surprising,” Diana said. “I expected more empathy.”

Liliya and Igor came to the airport from Bat Yam to post guarantees for Liliya’s daughter and 1-year-old grandson, who escaped to Poland from Lviv. The daughter was being interrogated in another room when I spoke to them.

Liliya is used to the situation. Her daughter has visited Israel several times as a tourist and was once denied entry. Since then, Liliya has twice posted guarantees for her.

“I haven’t been eating or sleeping; my brain isn’t functioning,” she said. “I’m thinking about my family there. My daughter’s husband stayed in Ukraine to fight.”

An hour later, an announcement arrived from the Immigration Authority – Liliya would have to post a 30,000-shekel guarantee for her daughter plus a 10,000-shekel guarantee for the baby. That is four times more than she expected to have to pay. Her optimistic smile vanished, and she was filled with anxiety.

“I can’t come up with an amount like that right now,” she said. “It’s 11 P.M. and there are no banks open to give me a guarantee right now. She’ll be stuck here until tomorrow. I’ll try to get help from friends.”

At 2:45 A.M., I heard from her again. “I’ve just now managed to get the 40,000 shekels and I got the word that she can go. They’re still there. What’s happening there is atrocious.”

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