Travel during COVID-19: As Omicron spreads, Israel may soon reopen skies

Gilad Kariv said Sunday the no-fly list would not be approved on Tuesday if the Population and Immigration Authority did not change the criteria for humanitarian exceptions.

Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 22, 2021. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 22, 2021.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Israel might soon lift at least some of the travel restrictions it put in place to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other government officials said Sunday.

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Gilad Kariv (Labor) said Sunday the no-fly list would not be approved on Tuesday if the Population and Immigration Authority did not change the criteria for humanitarian exceptions.

Bennett addressed the issue during the cabinet meeting at the request of Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid). “It is time to put an end to the isolation of vaccinated Israelis returning from abroad,” Razvozov. “It no longer has medical value.”

“I think it should happen this week,” he said. “At the same time, we should allow the return of vaccinated foreigners to Israel because, despite the aid package, the tourism industry and the economy will not be able to continue to bear this burden.”

In response, Bennett said: “It will probably happen this week as we reach the infection numbers that, at the time, we said would bring about this change.” The Tourism, Interior and Health ministries would meet to formulate the new policy, he said.

 Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Ben-Gurion Airport in wake of the new travel imposed in light of the COVID Omicron variant, November 28, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said some updates were expected this week.

“In the cabinet meeting today I raised the urgent need to open the skies for world Jewry,” he wrote on Twitter. “PM Bennett & health min. both committed to me that there will be a substantial easing of policies 4 entrance into Israel this week. I will continue to be your voice and advocate in the Gov.”

When South African scientists announced to the world that a new highly mutated variant was causing a surge in cases in their country at the end of November, Israel immediately closed its borders to all foreigners and required everyone coming back from abroad to quarantine for a minimum of three days, including the fully vaccinated. It soon after limited traveling for its own citizens by labeling an increasing number of countries as “red,” meaning where Israelis cannot travel without governmental permission.

The government said the measures would only be temporary and were meant to prevent the variant from penetrating Israel or at least slow it down.

Over the past few days, however, cases have been skyrocketing, a clear sign that Omicron is rampant in Israel.Of the 4,200 cases identified on Saturday, 6% were recorded among people who returned from abroad, and 94% were among people already here. Over the past week, the rates were 12% and 88%, respectively.

The issue was also discussed during a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

“We have not closed the skies,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of Public Health Services at the Health Ministry, told the committee. “We are identifying countries where the percentage of verified cases returning from them is 10 times higher than what exists in the State of Israel, and only these countries remain red. When we reach a situation where the imported disease is marginal and stands at 5% or less of the morbidity in the State of Israel, all of this will stop.”

Currently, the list of red countries includes the US, the UK, Canada, France, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, South Africa, Hungary, Tanzania, Nigeria, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey.

Kariv said the list of red countries was not going to be approved by the committee on Tuesday if the Population and Immigration Authority continued to refuse to expand the criteria for traveling to and from Israel in spite of the ban for humanitarian cases.

“Despite the conclusions of the last hearing, you have not changed anything,” he said. “You received proportionate and concrete requests from us. I announced that on Tuesday the regulations regarding red countries will not be approved, and I will recommend to my fellow MKs not to support them.”

Over the past few weeks, the Knesset committee has been working to bring the work of the Population and Immigration Authority, a branch of the Interior Ministry, under parliamentary oversight.

Together with the Health Ministry, the Population and Immigration Authority is tasked with setting the criteria according to which the so-called Exceptions Committee grants special permission for foreigners to enter Israel or for Israelis to visit red countries. In addition, its employees make up the committee itself, examining and approving or denying every request.

In previous meetings, the committee asked the Population and Immigration Authority to introduce several changes, especially to allow in foreign nationals whose center of life is in Israel or first-degree relatives of Israelis for special life-cycle events or other humanitarian cases. But during the meeting it emerged that the requests had not been accepted.

“For the first time, there is real oversight, and we are seeing the Knesset listening to the voice of the people and asking the government for answers,” said Dov Lipman, a former MK and the founder of the NGO Yad L’Olim. He has been at the forefront of the battle to help Israelis, especially olim, new immigrants, who have been impacted by the travel restrictions, prevented from seeing their families or from traveling abroad for work.

Yad L’Olim has been working closely with the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Ahead of the meeting on Sunday, it provided the MKs with a document listing several problems recorded in the field.

For example, despite what was decided in the previous meeting of the committee, the Population and Immigration Authority had yet to authorize first-degree relatives of grooms and brides from red countries to enter Israel for weddings, except for parents, or grandchildren to attend a grandparent’s funeral.

Kariv said if the Population and Immigration Authority did not start to listen to the requests from the Knesset by the end of January, the committee would not allow them to operate under the Entry to Israel Law, which allows it to set policies without a formal parliamentary approval, but rather under the General Coronavirus Law, which requires every measure to be okayed not only by the government but also by the Knesset.

“The level of suffering among people who have emergencies, who are missing family celebrations, and so on and so forth and are left stuck has reached an all-time height,” Lipman said. “We have lived in this situation long enough. It is time to find solutions.”