Coronavirus: Israel's airport policy turns the country into a prison

TRAVEL ADVISER: Ben-Gurion Airport is to remain shuttered at least until Sunday, February 21, and that could still be extended further.

PASSENGERS ARRIVE at Ben-Gurion Airport on an emergency flight last week. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
PASSENGERS ARRIVE at Ben-Gurion Airport on an emergency flight last week.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
As a result of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 the skies were closed for three days. It has been two weeks that Israel has closed its skies in an effort to lower the rate of COVID-19 infection.
During that time, Mara’s brother died in the United States; Efrat’s father is in a hospice in Jersey; Elena’s brother is undergoing cancer treatment out West; Edan must get to university; Terry runs the ER department in New Jersey.
All of the above have both Israeli and US passports. All had tickets on United and Delta. All cannot leave the country. Former MK Dov Lipman is trying to rally his forces, and petitions are being signed to Let My People Go.
The Great Escape is a 1963 American epic war film starring some of the best actors of the time. It’s based on a nonfiction book of the same name, a firsthand account of the mass escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German POW camp. Today the State of Israel is doing its utmost to keep those of its citizens who also have a US passport from flying to the US, leaving many to whistle the song from this epic film.
Ben-Gurion Airport is to remain shuttered at least until Sunday, February 21, and if the bureaucrats at the Health Ministry have their way, it will be extended deeper into our winter of discontent. A copy of the proposal the ministers approved says all foreign aircraft will be barred from entering Israeli skies or landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. Exceptions will be made for cargo planes, emergency aircraft and planes that traverse Israeli airspace without landing. Even the borders to Jordan and Egypt have been closed. The country is closed as tight as a drum with little concern for the damage it’s causing.
This week the Greek minister of tourism was allowed into the country to sign a tourism agreement. Heralding our shared interests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, announced that vaccinated tourists traveling between the two countries would be exempt from quarantine. It is hoped that after Passover it will be initiated.
Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen waxed poetic about the agreement. “Signing an agreement on international tourism when the skies are closed and vacations seem far away is a beacon of hope: it is a reminder to those working in the entire industry that we are working to make sure they reopen as soon as possible.”
It is so wonderful our Tourism Ministry is expending energy on enticing Israelis to travel abroad and enjoy Greek hotels. Israeli hotels, shorn for the last 11 months of any incoming tourism since almost all foreigners are still banned from coming to Israel, have not been permitted to reopen. They have not been encouraged to ready their properties for Passover. They have not been given any indication when Israelis can once again relax in Eilat or traipse through the Upper Galilee. Only bed-and-breakfast boarding hotels can host nuclear families.
Turning this policy on its head, the leading hotel chain Isrotel announced it will convert six of its hotels into bed-and-breakfast lodges and welcome Israelis. There is unofficial talk that hotels will be permitted to accept those Israelis with vaccination certificates. Not tourists mind you, but Israelis.
Few Israelis paid much notice to the press release that their green passports are valid for only six months, and that government policy could derail any attempts to reap overseas travel benefits. Israelis are rightfully proud of how many of them have been inoculated, and for the over-60 crowd the vaccination drive has been a runaway success, especially with the knowledge they will be able to travel abroad. For days, the press expended much energy on how to get an exemption to fly in or out Israel. The list was quite specific as to who would be eligible, but less attention was paid to the paucity of actual flights. The press release states that outbound air travel will be allowed only for exceptions and after receiving an exit clearance from the Exceptions Committee. It also notes that these restrictions do not apply to foreign nationals who are currently in Israel and want to exit Israel.
It is hard to believe, but only this week has the government decided that, regardless of being vaccinated; notwithstanding that you survived COVID-19, every incoming passenger must be tested within 72 hours of flying back to Israel. Upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, an additional COVID-19 test will be administered. A negative result will eliminate quarantine; otherwise, it is off to a corona hotel, courtesy of the State of Israel.
Israir was allowed a daily rescue flight to Frankfurt, with the senseless idea that the airport is a central point for flights flying out to dozens of countries. Toads at the Transportation Ministry never bothered to check that, other than Israir’s Friday schedule, all other days the plane lands too late to make connections to anywhere in the United States, the US being one of the few countries that Israeli passport holders can fly into. So, anyone naive enough to jump on the flight to Frankfurt would need to sleep in Germany overnight. Germany refused Israeli and American passport holders entry into the country, thus negating the entire concept. If you need to get to the United Kingdom, there are connections.
United and Delta continue flying from the US to Tel Aviv, transporting vital cargo between the two countries. El Al after one week finally requested to carry passengers and, in its sagacity, operated two flights. Yes, two flights the entire week was what El Al thought would handle the thousands of Americans stranded in Israel wanting to return to the US.
Delta’s commercial director for Israel, Esty Herskowicz, unwilling to elaborate on the idiocy of Israel’s policy, released a curt statement: “Delta is currently operating service between Israel and the United States as cargo flights because of the ongoing government restrictions.
“Delta’s application for authority to operate flights to repatriate people in both directions was denied by the government of Israel.”
I DISAGREE with the country’s policy to ban almost anyone (unless he is a Greek minister) from entering the country even if vaccinated.
It has been the policy of many countries to demand of any incoming passenger to have both a negative PCR test before boarding the plane and a second one upon arrival.
Our Health Ministry officials argue that none of the vaccines promise 100% efficacy. And there is some belief that the vaccinated may still carry the virus. Throw in their overriding suspicion that the mutated virus will weaken anyone’s immune system, and a case can be made to block anyone from entering the country or to force them to go to a COVID-19 hotel.
When Israel tried forcing all returning Israelis to quarantine in hotels, it was an unmitigated disaster. Far better to simply refuse almost anyone to enter Israel and, to make the numbers even smaller, not allow any incoming flights. In other words, rather than make the system work, we simply lock our doors. Instead of the Start-Up Nation finding a viable solution, we have turned into the Shut-Down Nation. Still there must be some loophole to bring Israelis home; some touch of humanity to rescue them.
There actually is a law in the books that states that for any Israeli rescue mission, it must be done on an Israeli aircraft with an Israeli crew. The emphasis, though, is on the word “rescue.” In the past it was Jews from third world or battle-weary countries. Today it is from New York and Frankfurt. And, of course, we must bring back those Israelis stranded in Dubai.
But are we talking about “rescue” flights from Israel to the US? What misanthropic lawyer wrote the law stating that a rescue flight could be categorized as one departing Israel? What right does Israel have to forbid a foreign citizen to fly back to his country of origin?
The US Embassy in Jerusalem has intervened without any apparent success. The country manager of United Airlines, Yael Barzilay, is doing everything in her power to get authorization, but to date her requests have been summarily dismissed.
For over a week, morning, noon and late into the evening, stranded flyers have begged me to get them on a plane. (True, not everyone is flying in for a funeral or for their work. Some who are now vaccinated are eager to meet their newly arrived grandchildren whom they have never had the pleasure of holding.)
Politics has taken hold over policy. Low- and high-level clerks at the Transportation and Tourism ministries are at a loss for words in trying to explain why United and Delta are not permitted to carry passengers out of Israel. The situation is untenable and both ethically and morally wrong.
The Great Escape does not have a Hollywood ending. Eventually, most of the escapees are rounded up by the Gestapo. Their demise is dramatic. We, however, need leaders who will rise to the occasion, cut through the bureaucratic bilge, and let those who desire to leave the country. Run them through an obstacle course to get on the plane, warn them that coming back into Israel may prove even more challenging, but let them leave Israel.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem, and a director at Diesenhaus. Email him questions and comments at [email protected]