Israel is lifting some of the restrictions it has put on travel to and from the country, in an attempt to stem the spread of variants of the coronavirus.
Foreign visitors remain barred, but many more Israelis wishing to come home will be able to do so, although there will be some rules to follow.
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Until now, all those entering the country had to go into government-run quarantine facilities, dubbed coronavirus hotels. A new plan allowing people to wear electronic bracelets and go into home quarantine was rushed through for approval by authorities, but neither system has enough resources to deal with incoming travelers. This means that for an as yet undertermined amount of time, people will be returning into home quarantine with little supervision.
Public Health Services chief Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, told Channel 12 News on Wednesday that, if Israel reopens the skies without isolation enforcement, "we are in trouble."
"We could be bringing ourselves back to March 2020 and starting this epidemic from the beginning," she said.
On this optimistic note, Haaretz answers questions about what will actually happen at Israel's borders on Sunday.
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What is the logic of the decision to open Ben-Gurion Airport at a time when carriers of coronavirus mutations have entered the country?
“The rationale was that the dangers posed by the mutations have be weighed against the fundamental right of Israelis abroad to return to Israel to vote [on March 23],” a Health Ministry official said. Beyond that, the considerable period during which many Israelis have been unable to fly back to Israel has other implications regarding their basic rights, he added. “We will see how things progress in the weeks leading up to the election and what we manage to do until then,” he said. He expressed the hope that within a few weeks, arrangements can be worked out that will place less pressure on the airport from those returning.
What are the countries from which flights to Israel are available?
In its plan to expand air traffic to and from Israel, the coronavirus cabinet designated the routes on which flights to Israel will be permitted, but they may be subject to change based on demand for seats.
Israel is currently permitting flights from just four cities abroad: New York, London, Frankfurt and Paris, with consideration being made to adding a city in Asia if necessary, as well as Kiev.
Travelers should bear in mind that the number of flights will be limited in accordance with the daily quota on the number of Israelis permitted to enter the country. The Transportation Ministry has to take into consideration that with regard to each city from which it permits air travel, it has to permit all airlines including foreign carriers to operate the route to Israel.
As for the land border crossings, entry into Israel from Jordan will be possible via Allenby Bridge twice a week. The Taba crossing with Egypt will remain closed, but there will be a one-off reopening to allow individuals stuck abroad since 3 February.
How many Israeli citizens are expected to arrive each day?
The coronavirus cabinet decided on a daily quota of 3,000, but Transportation Minister Miri Regev announced Tuesday that in the first phase, no more than 1,000 a day would be allowed in – to ensure effective enforcement as well as a supply of electronic tracking bracelets that in the future will enable Israeli authorities to ensure that those required to go into home quarantine do so.
This figure excludes essential foreign workers, new immigrants who cannot postpone their arrival, and professional athletes.
How many electronic bracelets does the Health Ministry have at its disposal to enforce quarantine and what are the alternatives to the bracelets?
Currently, there really aren’t sufficient bracelets, and preparations will continue for an estimated one or two weeks, during which 20,000 to 30,000 bracelets are expected to be delivered. They will provide an alternative to government-funded stays at coronavirus hotels, in addition to the Heskemon app that the Israel Police will be using.
The electronic bracelet plan was quickly put in place and the Health Ministry managed to obtain about 100 of them as a pilot program on the thought that several hundred additional bracelets would become available every week. The plan adopted Tuesday by the coronavirus cabinet did not give the Health Ministry sufficient time to immediately put the system into operation. In the coming weeks, the ministry is due to contract with several suppliers to obtain a sufficient supply to provide a real alternative to a stay in a coronavirus hotel.
So what will be happening in the interim until the bracelet plan is operational?
In the coming weeks, until the plan is operational, anyone boarding a flight to Israel is required to have had a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the flight. They are required to have another test on landing in Israel and must go into home quarantine. Even passengers who have recovered from the coronavirus or who have been vaccinated are required to undergo the testing.
And what are the options that will be available to those arriving in Israel under the new plan?
They will be able to chose between quarantine in a coronavirus hotel and the digital option – meaning either an electronic bracelet or the Heskemon police tracking app. Since the system is not yet in place and, as noted, there is not yet a sufficient supply of bracelets to provide an alternative to a coronavirus hotel, the country also does not have the capacity to accommodate everyone at such a hotel, meaning that the others will be required to go into home quarantine.
With the approval of the foreign, health and transportation ministries, the government also decided that airlines will be obligated to submit a list of passengers to the Health Ministry for on-demand epidemiological investigations.
What is the Health Ministry’s position regarding those who were vaccinated abroad?
Anyone vaccinated abroad, even if they provide confirmation of the vaccination, will be required to go into quarantine and to have a serology test. They will only be released from quarantine after the serology test result is found to be positive (meaning that there is evidence of antibodies against the coronavirus).
“The reason for this,” a Health Ministry official said, “is that we don’t have the means of knowing whether the confirmations coming from abroad are in order. There currently isn’t a global system through which information about those who have been vaccinated is shared, and there’s no way of knowing whether they have really been vaccinated and whether the confirmations are authentic.”
What factors are the exceptions committee expected to consider for passengers flying from Israel who are not vaccinated?
The aim of the committee is to determine whether the unvaccinated passenger seeking to fly abroad has an essential reason to leave the country, since it is also reasonable to assume that the person will be returning to Israel. For those who have not yet been vaccinated, there is increased concern that such passengers could be carriers of the coronavirus on their return. No new criteria have been set regarding what constitutes an essential trip and therefore the expectation is that the committee would rely on similar considerations to those that it has used up to now.
It has permitted people to leave who are not Israeli citizens or permanent residents or who are planning to fly to their permanent place of residence. Permission has also been granted to people who need to leave Israel for essential medical treatment, to attend a funeral, to assist a first-degree relative in distress or to attend a legal proceeding. Also considered proper grounds is a trip addressing an essential need relating to Israel’s foreign relations or defense, participation in a sports competition or a humanitarian or special personal need requiring departure from Israel.
How will those in quarantine get to vote on Election Day, March 23?
The Central Election Committee is gearing up for hundreds of thousands of those in quarantine or who are themselves infected with COVID-19 to vote in the Knesset election. As of now, the committee plans on having 480 special polling places available, some of which will be designated for those in quarantine and others for infected individuals in isolation. That figure may grow if the number of those in quarantine exceeds current expectations. (Israel does not provide the option of absentee ballots.)
Voters using the special polling stations will not have to arrange to vote there in advance. Their ballots will be handled using the usual “double envelope” system for people casting ballots at a location other than where they are registered. About 100 polling stations for people in quarantine will be set up at facilities around the country belonging to Clalit Heath Services, the country’s largest health maintenance organization. Clalit was the only one of the country’s four HMOs to agree to accommodate polling stations.
Voting will also be carried out at hotels that have been converted to house those in quarantine or who are infected and will also be carried out at hospitals (where voting will be made available only to patients who are not bedridden).
In addition, the election committee is inspecting about 20 drive-through coronavirus testing sites, which are run through the army’s Home Front Command and the Health Ministry, to possibly convert them into facilities where those in quarantine or who are infected can vote from their cars.
The widespread use of double envelopes in this month’s election may considerably delay voting results, because prior to tallying the ballot of someone in quarantine, the committee has to ensure that these voters did not also cast ballots at their regular polling places and that they only voted at one special polling station. It is only after that has been verified, which could take more than a day, that the ballots will be counted.