The High Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that regulations barring Israelis from entering the country beyond a quota of 3,000 people a day would lapse on Saturday night. The court didn’t “open Ben-Gurion Airport” as was claimed, and it certainly didn’t bring us back to the reckless situation that existed almost throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with the airport wide open to mass arrivals by both Israelis and tourists from all over the world, which led to big crowds without coronavirus testing, quarantining in hotels or any supervision whatsoever.
Nor did the ruling say there could be no restrictions on the entry of Israelis in the future. It merely said that such restrictions must be fact-based and proportionate, and that they cannot be arbitrary, as they have been for the past two months. The court didn’t ignore the dangers posed by variants of the virus; it merely said that the state’s failure to enforce quarantine isn’t an excuse for erasing one of the most fundamental civil rights – the right to enter one’s own country.
Contrary to the ridiculous attacks on it, the court’s ruling was within the bounds of its authority. Regulations must comply with the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, and this law explicitly protects the right of every citizen to enter Israel. Granted, this isn’t an absolute right, but any restriction of it must be proportionate.
The court pointed out that the state went from anarchy to almost hermetic closure at the end of January, when an exceptions committee was instituted to decide who could enter. The changes were not implemented gradually, nor did Israelis who were abroad receive any prior warning. As a result, tens of thousands of Israelis were stranded – some of them without valid visas, places to sleep or the ability to be absent from work. The court rightly ruled that this had no precedent anywhere in the world. Even countries that restrict entry based on the capacity of quarantine hotels (Australia, New Zealand) didn’t erase the right to enter or subordinate it to an “exceptions committee.”
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When on top of all this, the right to vote in a Knesset election is severely impaired – given that Israel doesn’t allow absentee voting – the regulations were unconstitutional. It’s acceptable to enforce quarantine through high fines or digital monitoring, but the country’s gates must be open to its citizens. The court proved that it is standing guard and protecting Israelis from the state’s abuses. But precisely because it is playing this critical role during the coronavirus era, such rulings ought to be handed down more quickly whenever problems arise.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.