In 1976, Israel amazed the world by successfully sending a team of commandos to Uganda and rescuing 248 hijacked passengers.
But 45 years later, the Jewish state has not even managed to fly a group of medical technicians to John F. Kennedy Airport to swab the country’s abandoned citizens and send them home to Israel.
Instead, thousands of Israelis are sleeping on airport floors and benches, posting pictures to Facebook and Instagram that are reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal.
“It is impossible to continue with this madness,” MK Orna Barbivai (Yesh Atid) told the press at Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday. “We must finally bring sanity.”
The government’s sweeping restrictions on Israeli citizens’ ability to return to Israel from overseas is without parallel in the democratic world, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
“An international comparison conducted by IDI found that other democracies combating the COVID-19 crisis have not imposed a blanket prohibition on their citizens’ entry and that the Israeli ban is highly exceptional,” an opinion submitted Sunday by the organization to Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri explained. “Other countries that have imposed restrictions on foreigners entering their territory such as Australia, the United States, Great Britain, France, Canada, Russia, Sweden, and New Zealand are allowing their own citizens to enter the country, even in these perilous times, although some of them do impose limits on the ability to leave the country.”
In New Zealand, where there have only been 2,376 cases of coronavirus and 26 deaths, the government recommends that people do not leave the country, but it allows them to do so. Citizens and permanent residents can enter the country subject to a negative coronavirus test or in exceptional cases.
In Australia, where there have been 28,970 cases and 909 deaths, there is no exit without a waiver and no entry for noncitizens. However, Australian citizens, residents, their close relatives or people who have spent the last 14 days in New Zealand can enter the country.
In the United States, travel is banned from certain countries with high infection rates, such as Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China and Great Britain – unless the people coming into the US from those countries are citizens, permanent residents or their families.Travelers from these areas must present a negative coronavirus test. The US leads the world in infection and deaths, with 2.86 million cases and 512,000 deaths.
“In view of every person’s constitutional right to leave Israel and every citizen’s right to re-enter the country, a general prohibition on entry and exit is not in the spirit of the provisions of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty,” IDI representatives wrote. “There is a concern that the erosion of the rights affected is not proportionate, but rather extreme, even in view of the current health challenge.”
“It is outrageous that we are not letting our own citizens in,” IDI senior researcher Dr. Amir Fuchs told The Jerusalem Post.
The airport closure was not implemented out of necessity but due to the state’s inability to effectively enforce quarantine on citizens returning to Israel, he said.
“The fact that we cannot enforce quarantine is not an excuse” for the current situation, he added.
The Health Ministry has reported that as many as two-thirds or more of arrivals did not go to hotels and failed to properly quarantine at home.
Prof. Hagai Levine, a public health physician and researcher at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health, said the government has failed to effectively manage Ben-Gurion Airport since the start of the crisis.
While other countries with similar physical attributes to Israel implemented controls that kept infection outside their borders, Israel’s government ignored repeated recommendations to set effective policies.
“I said from the beginning that we very clearly needed professional management at the airport,” Levine said.
He and others pushed to require testing before and after arrival, to place people in hotels and properly enforce their stay or to roll out other professional tools to ensure home isolation. But one year into the crisis, these systems are not effectively in place.
Moreover, Levine noted that it is not clear that the airport’s current closure is helping the country’s health – at least not as much as it should. He said because Israel is still allowing travelers from abroad into Israel without properly enforcing quarantine – even a small number per day – variants can still enter Israel.
For example, the Coronavirus Knowledge and Information Center warned of a New York City variant that might share some attributes of the South African mutation, meaning it could be resistant to the vaccine.
“I really fear people carrying the New York variant are already in Israel,” Levine said.
He admitted that a complete lockdown would reduce the risk of variants, but a hermetic closure means that all of Israel’s borders would be closed to everyone. People with connections (protexia) could not get in. Thousands of Palestinian workers would not cross into the country by land each day.
But as scenes from Ben-Gurion Airport aired over the weekend proved, people are definitely entering Israel, and at least some, if not many, of them are doing so without proper permits and screening.
“We know that all kinds of privileged groups come in [to Israel] and avoid quarantine,” Levine said. “You cannot lie to the virus.”
He stressed that the current policy is not effective in ensuring public health, and it is making Israel sick with lack of trust and politicization.
Moreover, the government has created a humanitarian crisis, Levine said.
“People are talking about elections,” he said. “Elections are important. But more than elections, there are Israelis locked outside of Israel.”
The government’s zigzagging on policy – opening the airport one day and closing it the next almost without warning – left many citizens without the means to alter their plans and return, often without the wherewithal to set themselves up properly abroad.
“This is not how a reformed country is run; this is what a country in collapse looks like,” MK Yoray Lahav (Yesh Atid) said on a visit to the airport on Sunday.
Added IDI: “The state must find an answer that is epidemiologically sound and constitutionally proportionate and must permit citizens to return home without delay.”