Israel Let in Thousands of Foreigners, but Refused 15,000 Citizens in Past Month of COVID Closure

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Ben Gurion Airport stands empty, last month.
Ben Gurion Airport stands empty, last month.Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Nearly 5,000 foreign nationals have entered Israel over the past month, after the imposition of strict limits on Israelis arriving abroad from entering the country, while over 15,000 Israelis have been denied entry.

According to figures obtained by Haaretz that are set to be presented to the cabinet on Monday, 4,800 foreign nationals entered Israel in the past month, while 15,949 Israelis were allowed to enter and at least 15,000 other Israelis had their request to enter rejected.

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In January, a nearly total ban on Israelis and foreign nationals entering and leaving the country was imposed pursuant to a cabinet decision to curb the spread of the various strains of the coronavirus. That was followed on January 25 by the creation of an exceptions committee to consider extenuating circumstances in which people would be allowed in or out of Israel. It has been swamped with requests.

According to Transportation Ministry figures, since the exceptions committee was established, 25,000 Israelis have asked permission to return home, some of whom live in Israel and some who live abroad. Ten thousand of the requests have been granted, while the rest have been declined. That means that roughly 15,000 Israelis currently abroad cannot enter Israel. Some of them left the country between November and January, were in the country for at least two months, and can be assumed to still have Israel as their main residence. There are also more than 600,000 Israeli adults outside of Israel who have not been in the country for over than a year. The category of foreign nationals includes new immigrants and the children of Israelis living abroad.

The committee has received a large number of requests from people seeking to enter or leave the country for medical reasons. The figures show that 947 such requests have yet to be decided upon. On Saturday, meanwhile, 68 foreign nationals entered the country. Last week, Sigalit Barkai, the legal counsel to the exceptions committee, said that the decisions relating to entry into Israel on humanitarian grounds were being made arbitrarily and based on precedent, without clear criteria. At a session of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, she said that the exceptions committee was working on developing clear criteria for admission to the country on humanitarian grounds.

“The moment we reduce the permitted cases to a closed list, we damage the goal that we are here for,” she said. “There are 4,000 requests a day stemming from various and sundry needs, and they have personal and individual aspects.” The committee, she said, has been analyzing prior cases “to develop some kind of measure for the humanitarian cases.”

The regulations limiting travel in and out of Israel are set to expire on March 10. Transportation Minister Miri Regev said on Sunday that her ministry plans on developing a plan that would permit Israelis to come back to the country to vote in the March 23 election and that, if approved by the cabinet, this would be expected to make the exceptions committee redundant.

Last week, the cabinet adopted a decision reducing the daily numbers of travelers permitted to enter the country from 2,000 to 200, citing the difficulty in enforcing the requirement that those arriving from abroad go into quarantine at a hotel. But after it was decided to renew the hotel quarantine requirement, the quota was left at 2,000.

Israel’s official policy is that incoming passengers are required to go to a quarantine hotel, unless they have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus. In practice, only about a quarter to a third of those arriving end up in hotel quarantine. The rest go home (to quarantine there, although this is poorly enforced), based on various exceptions or other kind of permission. For example, on Saturday, 448 passengers arrived in the country and only 182 were transferred to hotels.

According to Health Ministry data, in the past month, 1.2 percent of those arriving in the country were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the two weeks following their arrival. The partial shutdown of Ben-Gurion International Airport has not managed to prevent passengers with the new variants of the coronavirus from entering the country. About 450 cases of the South African variant have been found in dozens of communities throughout Israel. At least 30 of them were found through random testing and cannot be attributed to a patient’s travel abroad.

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