Thousands of Israelis still stranded abroad, some now making it back home

Many Israeli citizens are having to spend large sums of money on multiple COVID-19 tests, new flights and accommodation to get back to Israel, after the government shut Ben-Gurion Airport on Jan. 25.

The departure hall of an almost empty Ben-Gurion Airport, January 25, 2021.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
The departure hall of an almost empty Ben-Gurion Airport, January 25, 2021.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Thousands of Israeli citizens remain stranded abroad and have been unable to get back to Israel, either because they have not received government approval or because they cannot book a flight. Others are finally arriving home after spending significant sums of money to get here.
It has also taken more than 10 days for some applicants seeking to reenter the country to receive permission to do so. Some have had to repeatedly reapply to receive permission to return, and incoming flights remain scarce.
Complicating matters has been the travails of the exceptions committee tasked with approving or denying requests to reenter the country. It has moved four times between three different ministries. It started in the Transportation Ministry under Miri Regev, then moved to the Energy Ministry under Yuval Steinitz, then to the Regional Cooperation Ministry under Ofir Akunis, and then it returned to the Transportation Ministry.
There is one daily flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv operated by Israir. There are now three flights from New York to Tel Aviv, the Transportation Ministry said.
There also have been some ad hoc flights to and from Dubai and from London.
Despite these flights, those working on assisting citizens stuck abroad, including former MK Rabbi Dov Lipman and current Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, have said they are still dealing with countless requests for assistance to return.
The government recently announced a new system that increases the number of people allowed into the country daily from 600 to 2,000. Discussions are ongoing as to when it will be implemented, a government spokesman said.
Despite the tight restrictions on the number of citizens seeking to return home, more than 500 international competitors in a judo tournament being staged in Tel Aviv are entering the country this week to participate.
At the same time, some of those stuck abroad have been able to make their way home, including a father who needed to make it back from the US for his daughter’s bat mitzvah and a young family of returning citizens from the UK.
Alana Ruben left Israel in October to be with her parents in Canada after her father suffered a stroke.
She remained in Canada to assist her parents during the initial rehabilitation period and was scheduled to fly home on January 31. But her plans were upended when the government shut Ben-Gurion Airport on January 25.
Ruben immediately booked an Air Canada flight on January 24 when she heard the airport was about to close. But she was unable to get on it because it took too long to get her COVID-19 test back, which had cost her $180 Canadian, or about NIS 460.
Air Canada told her they would have a flight to Israel on January 31, so Ruben took another COVID-19 test and paid the same fee. But the flight was canceled 24 hours ahead of its scheduled departure.
She has been in limbo since then, unsure about when she may return home.
On Tuesday, Ruben managed to book a flight from Canada to Frankfurt this coming Sunday. She booked a flight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv, which departs on Monday night.
Since Ruben observes Shabbat, she will likely need to get two new COVID-19 tests since the test she will get in Toronto on Friday before Shabbat will probably not be valid for travel purposes by the time the Frankfurt flight is due to leave.
Ruben also had to pay $250, about NIS 800, for the flight from Frankfurt since her original Air Canada flight was direct to Israel.
“I am very supportive of Israel and the government, but this process has been Kafkaesque and inhumane,” she said. “This experience has dented my trust in the government.”
As someone who lives alone, requiring her to spend a minimum of 10 days in one room in a coronavirus hotel after returning, even after two negative COVID-19 tests, would be unnecessary and difficult, Ruben said.
Yaakov Mikhli, an immigrant from the US who made aliyah with his wife and five children two years ago, was stuck in New York after he traveled to the US for work at the beginning of January.
He was supposed to return on January 28 but was left stranded after the government decision to stop all commercial flights.
Last weekend was his daughter’s bat mitzvah, and it appeared that he would miss it. Eventually, he was granted a permit to enter the country and found a flight to make it home in time.
He did need to spend $600 on a one-way flight to Tel Aviv after his original flight was canceled and $150 on a COVID-19 test despite being vaccinated. He took the test because he was concerned that Transportation Ministry protocols would prohibit him from getting on his flight without the negative test results regardless of his being inoculated.