Israelis Are Stuck in COVID Exile

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A staff member walks through Ben Gurion Airport's empty departure hall, last month.
A staff member walks through Ben Gurion Airport's empty departure hall, last month. Credit: David Bachar

A man gets up in the morning and discovers he’s in temporary exile. That’s what has happened to thousands of Israelis who left the country legally but cannot return because the government has closed all the ports of entry. Ben-Gurion International Airport is closed, as are the land crossings. No Israelis can come or go without getting special permission, which has turned thousands of Israelis into tourists against their will.

>> UPDATE: Israel dramatically limits the number of Israelis who can return from abroad

No one is questioning Israel’s need to halt the pandemic’s spread, even if it means banning entry, due to the fear that dangerous mutations of the coronavirus may infiltrate. Since practically speaking Israel has only one main port of entry, it has an important strategic advantage in its battle against the mutations. But what the state has done is unprecedented: It has abandoned its citizens abroad without advance warning of the closing gates, and is preventing them from coming home to their families and jobs.

Some of these Israelis, whose foreign visas have expired, have become unwitting illegal aliens. Many are spending fortunes on lodging abroad. Some of them are at risk of losing their jobs because they can’t come back to Israel. This massive exile is not just unprecedented among developed nations, it’s a meaningless and even silly move. After all, Israel will have to let its citizens return at some point; and then what? There won’t be any dangerous mutations?

This snap decision to close the airport is typical of the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been managing the coronavirus crisis, but it’s not resolving anything. To cope with the pandemic there has to be a policy that allows for the safe entry and exit to and from Israel over time, without turning Israelis into refugees.

There are countries that have adopted such policies with amazing success; Australia and New Zealand adopted an “island policy” that has proven safe and effective over time. Both of them are regulating exits – allowing travel abroad only in exceptional cases – but are allowing everyone whose center of life is in those countries to return, on condition that he or she agrees to two weeks of quarantine in a hotel, at their own expense.

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the State of Israel can learn from other countries; to let Israelis return to their families and jobs on condition that they first submit to a strict quarantine in a coronavirus hotel. It would be better to do this now, even if it’s markedly late, than to wait for no reason and cause additional aggravation to Israeli citizens seeking to come home.

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

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