After Moscow's invasion of Ukraine brought air traffic between Russia and most Western countries to a halt, Israel remained one of few nearby destinations for those looking to flee the Kremlin's conscription push. The Foreign Ministry is trying to help draft-fleeing Israelis — who cannot enter nearby Estonia — escape from Russia. However, at Ben-Gurion International Airport, many Russian citizens are facing a similar reception: They are being refused entry and are at risk of deportation.
From September 2, when Russian President Vladimir Putin first announced the start of the draft, through Thursday morning, 6,566 Russian citizens arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, according to data from the Population, Immigration and Border Authority in the Interior Ministry. 135 of them were denied entry to Israel.
The Population Authority said that a large amount of people have arrived at the airport in recent weeks, and that the percentage of those who are refused entry is not unusual. But lawyers who specialize in immigration and entry procedures anticipate that the number of individuals who are denied entry into Israel will rise steeply.
The Aliyah and Integration Ministry also expects the number of new immigrants from Russia to climb in the next few weeks, when those who are eligible for aliyah and bought plane tickets after the draft announcement begin arriving in Israel. As of Thursday morning, 489 Russian citizens who landed in Israel after Putin announced the compulsory draft arrived with aliyah visas which were arranged in advance, said the Aliyah Ministry.
Nativ, the government agency responsible for examining the right to make Aliyah under the Law of Return for residents of former Soviet Union countries, said 434 people declared on arriving at the airport that they were entitled to make aliyah and intended on becoming Israeli citizens.
In other words, 923 of the Russian citizens who arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport since September 21 are olim, or those who claim that they have the right to make aliyah, and the rest arrived in Israel under tourist visas. Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, over 2,000 Russian citizens who sought to visit Israel were denied entry, Haaretz has learned.
One such citizen is Andrei (a pseudonym), a 41-year-old man from Saint Petersburg who is married to a Jewish woman. The pair have three children.
On Tuesday, Andrei was detained at the airport after he declared that he wanted to see the country to which his family was considering moving. A few hours later, he received an order to leave Israel – even though the non-Jewish spouses of those entitled to make aliyah are also entitled to make aliyah to Israel – as long as they go through the process of receiving an aliyah visa along with their spouses.
Usually, the process for receiving this visa is conducted in applicants' country of origin, but when the war in Ukraine prompted a large wave of aliyah candidates, Israeli authorities simplified the process. Now, potential olim can undergo an examination of their right to make aliyah after they land in Israel.
Andrei said his wife wanted to make aliyah a long time ago, but he was hesitant and wanted to first see the country with his own eyes. He bought a plane ticket at the beginning of the month, before Putin announced the new draft. Andrei underwent military training as part of his studies, and said that Putin’s announcement was the trigger that helped the family decide. Now, Andrei added, there is a real danger of him being drafted.
The transcript of the questioning Andrei underwent at the airport, which Haaretz has obtained, shows that he was asked whether he came to Israel because of his fear of being drafted.
“I decided that I would come to Israel for a week, visit relatives, look around, visit the holy places, and after that we will make a final decision,” Andrei said. “When that happens, my wife can come with the children, and then we will receive citizenship in an organized manner.”
When asked why his wife and children did not arrive with him, Andrei said: “We have unfinished business there. Additionally, the children are studying and need to finish the semester at the end of October. There are circumstances that make it difficult to organize in one day, to leave everything and travel everyone together. If I found I liked everything, I planned to stay, and then my wife would come with the children.”
Idan Moldavski, a lawyer from the Zernopolsky law firm that specializes in immigration and residency cases, filed an appeal against the decision to deport Andrei. The appeal said he “opposes the war against Ukraine and is not willing to participate in it.” The refusal of entry for Andrei could have him brought to trial and sent to prison for a long time, and “his family has planned to make aliyah to Israel for a long time, but in light of the recent events that endangered him, he fled,” states the appeal. After filing the appeal, Andrei was allowed to enter the country – if he deposited a guarantee of 5,000 shekels (over $1,400) – a sum that is considered to be less than average in similar cases.
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Alex Zernopolsky, an attorney from the firm representing Andrei, advertised his services through two well-known Russian YouTubers immediately after the announcement of compulsory conscription. Since then, his law firm has been flooded with thousands of requests from all over Russia from men slated to be drafted, and their wives and mothers – asking to know if they can escape to Israel, Zernopolsky told Haaretz. The border control authorities in Israel have been ready since Putin’s announcement – and tend to suspect men coming from Russia that they intend on staying here.
Sergei (a pseudonym) is 20 and lives in the Moscow province. He arrived in Israel last week to visit his mother – who is married to an Israeli and is going through a gradual process of obtaining Israeli citizenship. Sergei left Russia on the day Putin announced “partial” conscription for the Russian army. “We feared there would be a general draft, but we didn’t know when it would happen,” his mother told Haaretz. “He had a round-trip ticket, but when he was already in the air, we realized the situation had become dangerous,” she added. Because of his young age, Sergei was supposed to be drafted, even before Putin made his announcement Sergei feared he would be drafted into compulsory service, said his mother. He was studying in college, but he was not registered as a full-time student and as a result was unable to receive a deferment from the draft. Sergei recently froze his college studies.
After he landed in Israel, Sergei was detained for 13 hours, and in the end he was told that he was being denied entry and would be placed in the Yahalom detention facility at Ben-Gurion Airport. His mother was told at the Interior Ministry office at the airport that he was being refused entry both because she lived in Israel and because two years ago Sergei submitted a request for an aliyah visa – since he was the great-grandson of a Jew on his father’s side – and was refused, said his mother. Moldavski filed an appeal of the decision to deny Sergei entry and judge Michael Zilberschmidt of the appeals tribunal ordered to delay his deportation until a response was received from the Population Authority. After the ruling, the authority said it would approve Sergei’s entry if he deposited a guaranty of 5,000 shekels.
Sergei, who has Ukrainian roots on his father’s side, told in correspondence with Haaretz about his feelings in light of the risk he might be drafted for the war: “I don’t want to betray any one of the countries, but Russia is forcing me to go against the land where I was born, where my father and grandfather were born.”
“At the airport I saw Russians and Ukrainians, who have no difference at all between them. They are brother peoples who were set on each other, It hurts and is scary to think that I will go to fight against my true homeland,” wrote Sergei.
The Population and Immigration Authority said: “The border control policy has not changed and there is no specific policy for the holders of any one passport or another, except for the policy that has been issued in an explicit manner.”
Concerning Sergei’s case, the authority said: “The impression from the questioning was that this was a passenger who arrived to stay in Israel without arranging it [in advance] and as a result his entry was denied.”
As for Andrei’s case: “From the entirety of the facts that came up in the questioning, a heavy suspicion arose that [Sergei] arrived with the purpose of settling in Israel and without arranging it according to the law and regulations. For this reason, he was denied entry. The matter is pending on appeal,” said the Population and Immigration Authority.