Israel's COVID Flight Ban Turned Its Citizens Into Illegal Immigrants

Israel's coronavirus flight ban left thousands stranded abroad, often in violation of local laws. A draconian solution turned into a nightmare

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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A traveler in Ben-Gurion International Airport, last month.
A traveler in Ben-Gurion International Airport, last month.Credit: David Bachar
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Plia Kettner is angry at the State of Israel, which has turned her into what she calls an illegal immigrant. Not in Israel, but in Sweden, where she had flown to meet her partner. They had been apart since the onset of the pandemic.

Last month, Israel imposed a ban on international flights, which prohibits its citizens from returning home. As a result, Kettner’s visa has expired and she has been forced to ask Swedish authorities for humanitarian aid and official recognition of her unusual situation.

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Kettner had no choice but to violate Swedish law because Israel has left its own citizens to fend for themselves overseas. A government committee to grant exemptions from the flight ban wasn’t meeting at all at the beginning, and when it finally started to, it collapsed under the weight of applications. Finally, the government opened the skies a little and permitted rescue flights for Israelis stranded abroad – one daily from Frankfurt being flown by Israir and three a week by El Al Airlines from New York.

The rescue flights aren’t really doing their job. First, in order to board one, an Israeli needs approval to return home from the exemptions committee, which is a tedious bureaucratic procedure. Second, would-be passengers have to buy a ticket, and demand far exceeds supply. Third, Israelis who are not in New York or Frankfurt have to get to one of those cities on their own, and arrange the flights in such a way that they can get a coronavirus test within 72 hours of boarding the plane to Israel.

Those planning to fly back through Frankfurt have to claim their luggage from the connecting flight, which means going through passport control. The problem is that Germany right now isn’t letting Israeli passport holders cross its border due to COVID. The German authorities have a solution, but it means that your luggage only gets on the next flight the following day. In any case, those who can’t get to Frankfurt on a connecting flight the same day as the Israir flight can’t take a hotel room for the night – they have to sleep in the terminal lounge.

The problems don’t end once the hapless Israeli citizen lands at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The hotels the government has requisitioned for coronavirus quarantine can only accommodate 600 new travelers a day (a total of 6,000). About half of those arriving at the airport are sent to the hotels (the rest are exempt due to age, sickness, pregnancy, an urgent event and, of course, those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID). The result is that Ben-Gurion can accept only 1,000 to 1,200 arrivals daily.

The fact is that any Israelis who innocently left the country before January 25, when there were no prohibitions on flying, now find themselves exiles – unable to return to their families, their visa expired and their hotel bills growing by the day.

The excuse for closing the skies is, of course, preventing the spread of the new and more virulent variants of the coronavirus to Israel. But like every other policy imposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government since the start of the pandemic, the flight ban was about acting first, thinking afterward.

The flight ban is a dumb way to prevent the spread of COVID and comes at a needless cost to travelers. Because no one looked past the end of their nose when they made it, Israel became embroiled in a dispute with the United States, which said that using only Israeli airlines for rescue flights violated the two countries’ Open Skies agreement.

Conducting coronavirus tests at Ben-Gurion International Airport, last month.Credit: David Bachar

Like all the other coronavirus restrictions, the flight ban will begin to loosen spontaneously. Side by side with the rescue flights, private flights are being given permission to land in Israel; for example, hundreds of judokas arrived in Israel from all over the world for a competition in Tel Aviv this week. They all had taken coronavirus tests, but only had to undergo a brief quarantine.

Worse still, on February 20, next Sunday, the flight ban expires – and then what? Assuming that the coronavirus doesn’t take a spring vacation, nor do its variants, the government will be left with the grim reality that thousands of Israelis are stranded abroad with no orderly, practical way of returning home.

There is a better way: implementing a clear policy that is consistently enforced. Require anyone coming from abroad to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days and take two tests. That will enable people who must travel to fly and come home when they are ready. Hotel quarantine is preferable to home quarantine, which is often violated and, even when it is not, poses the risk of contagion within the house.

Rules like that have worked in other countries. Australia, for example, bars anyone from leaving the country except under exceptional circumstances. It has an exemptions committee that controls the number of people leaving and who gets permission, and requires returnees to quarantine at a hotel at their own expense. That last requirement by itself severely limits the number of people who apply to fly.

Israel seems intent on reinventing the wheel rather than learning from the successes of others. The Health Ministry is threatening to extend the flight ban unless some way is found is enforce quarantine rules. The simplest solution, to require quarantining at hotels, is being rejected out of hand after the traumatic experience of hundreds of travelers returning from Dubai and vehemently protesting orders confining them to hotels.

The empty arrivals terminal at Ben-Gurion International Airport, last month.Credit: Moti Milrod

The ministry doesn’t believe it can force people into a hotel and doesn’t believe in fining those who protest. In the case of Dubai, there were those who paid 5,000-shekel ($1,540) penalties and went home. Instead, the National Security Council, the police and the Public Security Ministry are considering alternatives such as putting electronic bracelets on returnees (Taiwan is believed to be the only country doing such a thing), or requiring them to download an app that identifies where they are once every several hours. This is home quarantine enforced by electronics.

It’s hard to see how any of these technological solutions can be put into a place in less than a week and, in any case, they don’t solve the problem of contagion within the home. In addition, it will be very difficult to administer this program if there aren’t limits on the number of people who can leave Israel in order to limit the number who return.

No matter; aviation industry sources say Ben-Gurion will fully reopen in another two weeks without any controls. Why? Because hundreds of shohatim (ritual slaughterers) need to travel abroad to help ready enough meat for the Passover holiday and because it will help Netanyahu’s election campaign. If so, the prime minister’s pre-election favor to voters will cost Israel a lot later on.

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