Crossing the Border

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Ben Gurion enters its second month of near total closure.

Israel has turned its back on its citizens. There’s no other way to describe it. Yes, there’s a dangerous pandemic out there, and all kinds of curbs on civic freedoms have become almost routine in Israel and elsewhere, and some of these restrictions are necessary and justified.

But in closing Ben-Gurion International Airport, which has been shut since January 26, a clear line has been crossed. One of the most basic rights in the relationship between a state and its citizens is the right to enter the country. That’s true even in normal times, and all the more so during a pandemic and a global crisis. And it’s certainly true with regard to people who, when they left the country, didn’t even have an inkling that its gates were going to be shut overnight.

Moreover, the government almost actively encouraged an aerial caravan to Dubai, overriding health care normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates and translate it into political capital. But the combination of a rise in incidence of the coronavirus, public criticism and the embarrassing weakness of the gatekeepers led to a decision, with almost no warning, to close Israel’s doors and abandon its citizens to their fate are officials’ professional opinion, to prove the success of this. 

No Western democracy has done this. Yes, it’s difficult to enforce mandatory quarantine in hotels. But the difficulty of enforcing these rules on some Israelis cannot serve as an excuse for such a severe violation of the constitutional rights of thousands of others. Subordinating such a fundamental right to an “exceptions committee” that operates behind the scenes, is appointed by politicians and – judging by a growing body of evidence – isn’t motivated solely by substantive considerations undermines this right.

When you add in the fact that voting in Israeli elections requires citizens to be in the country, the government has clearly gone too far. Such a committee must not be allowed to infringe on the right to vote in a Knesset election. It’s unacceptable to make people who want to leave the country to care for a sick parent promise not to return for 60 days, thereby effectively preventing them from voting in next month’s election. Indeed, it’s unacceptable to prevent anyone who is eligible to vote from coming to Israel to exercise this right, even if they didn’t leave recently.

The cabinet, the Knesset – which has virtually ceased supervising the executive – and the gatekeepers must come to their senses. The coronavirus must be fought by banning gatherings, enforcing the regulations equally on everyone, quarantining people when necessary and encouraging people to get vaccinated. But the most important thing of all is trust between citizens and their government.

The terrible mistake of leaving Ben-Gurion Airport wide open for such a long time cannot be rectified by the mistake of an almost hermetic closure governed by a political committee. That’s a recipe for creating even more distrust, suspicion and alienation. If the decision-makers don’t come to their senses, the Supreme Court must set boundaries for the government and protect Israelis from it.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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