For the majority of Israelis during the pandemic, travel has become more of a chore than it is usually, with lengthy waits for airport COVID tests and the necessity of obtaining special permission from an exceptions committee before traveling to countries on the government’s “red” list of dangerous destinations.
On Tuesday, eight people were removed from a flight to Russia and fined NIS 5,000 (USD 1,537) each for attempting to travel without the committee’s approval. However, such restrictions and their subsequent penalties do not appear to apply to the wealthy who can fly to any destination they can think of, if they can afford to fly on private flights.
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According to the Airports Authority, the number of passengers on private flights increased by about 20 percent from the beginning of the year compared to the same period in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
The issue of private flights is not the only loophole that has yet to be closed regarding enforcement of restrictions for traveling to prohibited countries. Another problem is that while Israel can stop one of its citizens from flying directly to a prohibited destination, if they arrive via a connecting flight, there is little that can be done.
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. 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 committee.
On the list of countries today are Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Russia.
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.
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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 are 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.
While the Health Ministry said that such behavior is “improper and illegal” and endangers the community, it stated that “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 where they are coming from.”
On Tuesday, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli ordered passengers landing from red countries to be separated from other arrivals and redirected to the airport’s old Terminal One, thus creating a separation and minimizing the risk of infection.
This separation will allow those arriving to go through the entire chain of entry into the country - landing, PCR inspection, passport control, luggage, customs and travel home - separately from the other arrivals.
According to a report by the Ynet news website, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is set to propose a new regulation which would ban returning Israelis who violate quarantine from flying abroad for a period of a full year.
COVID test disparities
Travelers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport in recent weeks have complained of long lines for mandatory COVID tests. Since the Ministry of Health decided last year to require returning passengers from abroad to be checked upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport, the Omega company has operated the corona testing system, but earlier this month the Health Ministry decided to end its contract and hired a new company, Femi Premium, to do the testing.
During periods of high traffic, Femi has failed to manage the high demand for testing, with many passengers reporting having to wait up to an hour to be tested. This inability to keep up with demand has allowed potentially infected travelers to slip through the cracks. Just two weeks ago, hundreds of people entered the country without being swabbed.
More affluent passengers are able to circumvent these delays by using the services of Fattal Terminal Services, which provides private VIP agents to whisk its clients through security checks and passport screening in its private facility at the airport. Its services start at over NIS 1,300 (410 USD).
It turns out that the richer passengers - for whom an additional payment is a trivial matter - can evade the long and exhausting queues for corona tests.