COVID-19 lockdown: Anger, frustration among Israelis stranded abroad

Yaakov Mikhli set to miss his daughter’s bat mitzvah after being stuck in New York following the government’s decision to close Ben-Gurion Airport without prior notice on Jan. 25.

THE EMPTY departures hall at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. When will the skies open up and how long will it take until traveling is safe? (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
THE EMPTY departures hall at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. When will the skies open up and how long will it take until traveling is safe?
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Thousands of Israelis remain stranded abroad while awaiting approval from a special government committee to reenter the country after Ben-Gurion Airport was closed to commercial flights at the end of January.
The airport was shut on January 25 to all commercial flights without prior notice due to the government’s concerns over the entry of highly contagious COVID-19 variants into the country. It is tentatively scheduled to reopen by February 21.
It is estimated that some 10,000 Israelis are currently stuck abroad. The Interior Ministry’s Population Authority did not reply to a request for information on the precise figure.
The government has now set up a formal process to apply for a permit to reenter the country for those who traveled abroad before the airport was closed. But applicants are experiencing delays and other obstacles in their efforts to return home and to their families.
Some families have been separated for weeks, some individuals are unable to work, and others are facing severe disruption to their lives and to the lives of their children, in many cases suffering financially.
Applications are currently being processed through a special committee under the auspices of the Regional Cooperation Ministry and its minister, Ofir Akunis, with representatives from the Health, Aliyah and Integration, Interior and Transportation ministries, chaired by Regional Cooperation Ministry Director-General Hashem Hussein.
There is just one flight to Israel per day from around the world, operated by Israir from Frankfurt. This means that even citizens who have obtained a permit to reenter Israel are having a hard time finding a flight and returning home.
These problems are compounded by the requirement to present a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of flying. This has proved difficult for some people who must carefully schedule their flights into Frankfurt and their ongoing journey to Israel.
Yaakov Mikhli, an immigrant from the US who made aliyah with his wife and five children two years ago, is currently stuck in New York, having traveled to the US for work at the beginning of January, before the airport was shut.
Mikhli, who has received both shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, was supposed to return on January 28. But he has been stranded ever since the government closed the airport.
This weekend is Mikhli’s daughter’s bat mitzvah, and at present it does not appear that he will be present for the occasion.
He applied on Sunday for permission to reenter the country but has yet to receive a response.
Even if Mikhli gets approval to return, it is unlikely he will find a flight  to Israel. Blights from Frankfurt are greatly oversubscribed, and the three “rescue flights” scheduled by El Al on Monday to fly from New York on Thursday and Saturday night were booked within hours.
His wife, Michelle, who has been taking care of their children by herself since he left for the US, said life as an immigrant without family in Israel is generally challenging and has been made even more difficult during the COVID-19 crisis.
Without her husband, things have become even harder.
Michelle said her family has no close relatives in Israel, and the bat mitzvah celebration was going ahead without grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
“We have done everything by the book,” she said. “We follow the rules, and it’s so frustrating to feel like we have been stranded with no help. For a family to be separated like this is very disappointing and scary.”
JOANNA BRAUNOLD, her husband, Daniel, and their two children are Israeli citizens who have been living in the UK for the last two years, where Daniel has been working as a pediatric anesthetic consultant.
They were scheduled to return to Israel this coming Sunday, and Daniel was to resume work at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa. But they are now in limbo as their application for an entry permit remains unanswered and their flight was canceled.
The lease on their apartment expires at the end of next week and cannot be extended. They are searching for somewhere for their family to live while they wait for the permit and try and find a new flight.
Braunold noted difficulties with the online application form, which others have also experienced.
Completion of the form is supposed to end with the receipt of a confirmation number. But applicants have reported not receiving one, and they are unable to track the status of their application.
In addition, the application form allows for only one individual at a time to submit an application, Braunold said, and subsequent efforts to apply for other family members resulted in a message that an application had already been filed.
Michael, another immigrant to Israel who requested that his family name not be used, is stuck in Paris after he flew to France on January 22 to visit his elderly parents, who he had not seen for many months.
He applied for an entry permit on Friday but has still not received an answer. Michael works in the financial-services industry and cannot work remotely. He has been required either to take unpaid leave or a vacation.
Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former MK, has been working voluntarily to assist Israeli citizens stranded abroad. He described the situation as “chaotic” and “ a circus” and deplored the government’s handling of the crisis.
“I don’t have a doubt that if the prime minister or other ministers had relatives abroad that they would find the justification to get them approval to return home,” Lipman said.
“Leaders must look at their people as members of their own family, and sadly they aren’t doing so,” he said. “This inhumane policy must end. Approvals must be given to all Israelis immediately, and flights must be provided for them.”
IN A statement to The Jerusalem Post, Akunis said: “The multi-ministry committee, chaired by Hashem Hussein, will, on the one hand, exercise high sensitivity to the requests it receives; on the other hand, the committee will not act irresponsibly. Each and every request will receive a fair consideration from the committee members in full accordance with the criteria approved by the cabinet.”
A Transportation Ministry spokesman said: “In accordance with the government decision to limit entry into Israel, with the goal of preventing the entry of [COVID-19] mutations, it was determined to operate one flight a week to Frankfurt. The destination was decided due to the availability of flights to other destinations around the world.
“Following requests we were made aware of, we have scheduled additional flights to destinations in the US and Dubai in order to return citizens to Israel who left the country before January 25 or others who exited legally.”
In response to a request for comment as to why all Israeli citizens are not able to come home immediately, the Ministry of Health said that all those returning to the country must be quarantined in coronavirus hotels to prevent the entry of dangerous COVID-19 variants, and that there is not enough space for all those currently left abroad.
“There is no capability at this time to receive thousands of Israelis at one time and therefore [citizens] are required to submit requests to the exceptions committee which is assisting in the prioritization of cases for who can return earlier, such as medical emergencies, humanitarian cases and so on,” said the ministry.