Permanent and temporary residents of Israel, as well as other foreign nationals with valid visas for extended stays in the country, have experienced great difficulties reentering the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, a situation which continues today and has been exacerbated by new restrictions due to the Omicron variant.
These circumstances have left spouses and long-term partners of Israeli citizens stranded outside the country for lengthy periods of time, and has caused frustration and emotional distress for people affected by the severe restrictions imposed by the two government administrations that have been in charge during the pandemic.
Tim Oprel, originally from Holland, has been living in Israel for ten years working as an administrator at a kibbutz.
He has volunteered in the IDF’s Sarel program on several occasions for several months at a time, and is an ardent but non-Jewish Zionist, making it extremely difficult to get citizenship.
Some six months ago, his B4 six-month visa expired but the Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) of the Interior Ministry refused to renew it as it had previously, so he was forced to leave the country.
Prior to this, Oprel had formed a relationship with Naomi Zacks, an Israeli citizen, and the two have been together for more than eight months.
After his visa-renewal request was denied, the two began a process at PIBA to have their relationship formally recognized so Oprel could obtain a partner’s visa allowing him to return to the country. Two months after their last interview, however, he has yet to hear about the status of his request.
“It has been really difficult living without him for the last six months,” said Zacks.
“We have met in different countries, but conducting a relationship over Zoom has been heartbreaking,” she said.
“It makes me really mad. He has dedicated his life to be in the country, helped out, contributed to Israeli society, and now he is treated this way. [It] is disgusting.”
LIOR BERES, who co-administers a Facebook group called “Mixed Couples in Israel” that has some 7,500 members, says there are countless stories of suffering among such couples during the pandemic era.
She says the state has largely related to two categories of people during the COVID-19 crisis – Israeli citizens and foreign nationals – and has failed to take into consideration the needs of people for whom Israel is their home and the center of their life, as it is for full citizens.
During a Knesset hearing on the issue earlier this week, Beres noted that since the government restored its draconian entry restrictions for foreign nationals last week, her Facebook group has been flooded by stories of visa-holders stranded outside the country.
Although the government has now allowed such residents to enter the country, a series of problems has made it difficult for such people to get back into Israel.
Beres gave one example of a foreign national with an A5 temporary residency visa who is married to an Israeli citizen but who has been stuck in Brazil for five months, unable to return.
Now that she is technically able to return, the PIBA has said she has stayed abroad too long, and is refusing to extend her A5 visa.
Events this week have proved again how poorly residents with different visas have been taken into consideration by the government.
Bernd Burgmaier, originally from Germany, has been living in Israel on an A5 visa for the last five years, and has been in a relationship with an Israeli citizen for the last eight years, having originally met in the US.
Last Friday, he left the country to visit family in Germany, but when the government announced it was shutting down the borders, Burgmaier was again left in limbo.
Although the government has now formally allowed visa-holders back into the country, several bureaucratic and technical problems have meant that dozens of such people have remained stranded outside of Israel, including many who have turned up at airports to board flights and been refused.
Former MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who heads the Yad L’Olim organization that assists people with entry into Israel, said the treatment of visa-holders during the COVID-19 pandemic has been unjust.
“Throughout the entire corona crisis, Israeli authorities did not view visa-holders in a proper manner. They looped them together with foreigners instead of Israelis,” Lipman said.
“These people who live here, pay taxes here and their lives are here – and for whatever reason, they are not full citizens and they were punished for that terribly: not being able to travel overseas, not being able to come back in, not being able to have freedom of movement as Israelis do.”
Lipman did, however, praise MK Gilad Kariv – who heads the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which has oversight over these issues – for finally addressing these problems this week.