Israelis Trying to Help Ukrainian Refugees Blocked by Shabbat-observant Computers

Over the course of a few hours at the government credit clearing system, relatives of Ukrainians who fled Russia's invasion to come to Israel described numerous bureaucratic hurdles, interrogations

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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The guarantee deposit counter at Ben-Gurion Airport, Friday.
The guarantee deposit counter at Ben-Gurion Airport, Friday.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Boris and Natasha Blatt of Gan Yavneh arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport at 7:30 A.M. Friday, with bank checks for 10,000 shekels ($3,000) as guarantees for two relatives who had fled from Ukraine. Clerks at the immigration counter refused to take the checks until after the women were questioned by the Border Police.

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At 4 P.M., Boris says, he and Natasha were called over to explain their relation to the women. He was then asked to add 10,000 shekels more for each, since they aren’t first-degree relatives – paid in cash, since the government credit clearing system was down for Shabbat.

Blatt had to leave the airport, stop at an ATM and go to his daughter’s in Kiryat Gat, 63 kilometers away, to get enough cash. Just in case, he withdrew an additional 10,000 shekels: He needed it, since he was asked to deposit a further 5,000 shekels for each relative, to be returned after he deposited the bank checks Sunday.

Documentation from the interrogation room at Ben Gurion AirportCredit: Sophie Itskevich

Only at 9 P.M. were the women able to leave the airport. “They treated us as if they didn’t believe us,” Blatt says. “Why couldn’t I give a personal check? Why did they insist on cash?”

Over the course of a few hours at the counter, refugees’ Israeli relatives described numerous bureaucratic hurdles. Several people had to leave the airport to get cash. Their relatives, meanwhile, were detained for questioning for hours; some said there was a personnel shortage.

“Shabbat began so you couldn’t pay” except in cash, says Konstantin, who had come to pay a deposit for his partner, in a video that went viral. “I told them I wanted to pay, that I have a credit line at the bank, that they could even take 30,000 shekels. How can I obtain such a sum in cash, should I use the ‘gray’ market? If I get the cash, will there be anyone here to take it?” At about 9 P.M. his partner was allowed into Israel – without a guarantee.

A sign at the counter says it’s open all hours except from 2 P.M. Friday to 7 P.M. Saturday. In practice, on Friday it remained open until 7 P.M., closed for over an hour and reopened. According to a source in the civil service, complaints about overcrowding and excessive bureaucracy reached the Foreign Ministry, whose officials demanded that things be made easier for arrivals.

As a result, the Interior Ministry decided to keep the counter open throughout Shabbat. In the meantime, dozens of people crowded around the counter in the belief that it was about to close, worried that they would have to wait until Shabbat was over. There was also heavy pressure in the spaces used for questioning arrivals.

Edi, an Israeli citizen, escaped Ukraine on the morning of the Russian invasion, with his partner Anastasia. He flew to his parents in Israel while Anastasia went to some relatives, where she left the couple’s dogs. She landed in Israel midday Friday. Edi and his father had arranged the deposit in advance, but had to wait while Anastasia was detained for an unknown reason. She said that after landing, she was taken to a side room.

The questioning room of the Population and Immigration Authority at Ben-Gurion Airport, Friday.

"They said: you probably know this room, but the truth is I didn’t, since I had never been questioned when coming to Israel.” She said that there were 50 people in the room, including many mothers with children. “We sat and waited; they didn’t tell us anything.” Edi adds: “In Europe they receive everyone warmly. On the way, we were offered food and even housing. My partner isn’t seeking asylum, we’re both here in order to get some relief from the war.”

Yelizaveta Kushnirenko from Kyiv, who works for an Israeli high-tech company, left her home last week. Her guarantor was the company’s owner. She landed in Israel at 2 P.M., was questioned at around 8 and was allowed to leave at 11 P.M.

“Everywhere I passed through on my way here, people took care of me,” she said. “Here I was treated like crap, after a week in which I didn’t sleep or eat normal food. They asked me why I came here and what I wanted. I didn’t see one person who showed any concern for me. I feel that they’re angry at us for being here.”

According to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, 472 Ukrainians arrived in Israel Friday. Entry was denied to 17 of them. Since the war began, 1,830 people have come to Israel, 89 of whom were denied entry. In the first five days of the war, before the need for guarantees was instated, 50 out of 303 Ukrainians were denied entry.

In a written response the immigration agency said that on Friday, even though the public was notified that the counter for depositing guarantees would be open from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M., so people could make the appropriate arrangements, it was open all night in order not to delay people who were allowed entry subject to a guarantee.

After these were deposited, passengers were allowed into the country. “Border agents work around the clock, seven days a week, and part of their job, as is customary around the world, is to question passengers when required.”

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