With new COVID travel rules, immigrant families are back to square one

Israel reopens to foreign nationals who meet the country’s immunization criteria. Those who don’t are left with no option to visit their loved ones.

Passengers at the Departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Passengers at the Departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

For the first time in 20 months, beginning Monday, some foreign nationals will be able to enter Israel without special permission to do so. However, for many immigrants and their families abroad, the development does not represent an improvement in their ability to see each other, but the opposite.

According to the new rules, inbound travelers need to have been inoculated with a coronavirus vaccine recognized by the World Health Organization for at least 14 days and no more than 180 days at the time they lived in the country. Alternatively, they must have received a booster at least 14 days earlier.

Recovered individuals need to have done so within the previous six months or to have been administered at least one shot – proven through a digital recovery certificate.

As the new outline takes effect, all those who do not meet the required immunization criteria will be effectively banned from Israel. This includes first-degree relatives of citizens and permanent residents who up until November 1 were entitled to enter Israel provided they were vaccinated or had recovered – without any time limit.

Booster shots are available only in certain countries and often only to populations considered at risk, such as the elderly or people with underlying health problems.

This means that once again, thousands of parents, children and siblings of Israeli citizens are stuck outside the country.

The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021.  (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

After families were kept apart for about a year starting in spring 2020, both the Population and Immigration Authority at the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry set up procedures to allow these people to receive special approval to enter the country.

While the system was marred with limitations – such as the fact that grandparents were not included in the outline, and a lack of proper instructions and delays – it still ensured that many could visit their loved ones.

On Monday, these procedures were canceled – even though as of Sunday, the forms were still online – and permissions already granted were automatically voided.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson confirmed that there was no plan to renew the system to allow those who do not meet the criteria to be granted a permission.

According to the website of the Population Authority, the only foreign national relatives of an Israeli citizen eligible for entry are parents of a marrying couple or for a funeral (in this case, they are allowed only 24 hours in the country).

Births, bar/bat mitzvahs, other special events or circumstances are not included in the “circumstances in which the admission of foreigners who do not conform with the Green Pass regulations will be authorized on an unusual and after-examination basis,” as listed by the Population Authority.

“Israel is taking a step backwards,” said Rabbi Dov Lipman, founder of Yad L’Olim, an organization that helps immigrants navigate the Israeli bureaucracy. Lipman has been lobbying the authorities on behalf of families and assisting applicants claiming special circumstances.

“The government is saying that everything is opening up, but along the way, they’ve closed the door for many,” he said.

According to Lipman, even persuading the authorities to allow parents to attend their children’s wedding required a lot of effort.

“There are grandparents out there who raised their children to be Zionists, to love Israel, to move here and serve here as young people and now we’re going to deprive them of the opportunity to be here for the birth of their grandchild,” he noted. “This is crazy.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, Israel has struggled to keep infection from entering through Ben-Gurion Airport, which has caused a lot of mistakes and confusion. During the first and second waves, precautions were not taken in time resulting in tens of thousands of infections.

On the other hand, since January 2021, the airport was shut completely for a few weeks, preventing Israeli citizens from leaving and re-entering the country. Strict quarantine measures were imposed – often unenforced.

The predicament of Israelis whose families abroad do not meet the immunization criteria is not the only problem.

As of Sunday, hours before the new rules took effect, the new entry statement to be filled out declaring one’s vaccination/recovery status in the 48 hours before the flight and presented to the airline before boarding, was not yet online.

The rules themselves had not yet been published on the English website of the Health Ministry. Airlines were not even notified and some people were denied boarding, Lipman said.

In addition, differences emerged between the plan announced by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on October 21 and the one published by the Health Ministry on Thursday.

According to Bennett’s statement, travelers would be allowed into the country one week after the second or third Pfizer shot. In the new plan, it is 14 clear days after the shot.

In addition, to prove recovery from COVID, a digital certificate is required, provided only by certain countries, and not, for example, by the US.

Once again, while these changes might not stop someone who is solely interested in entering Israel for tourism – who can postpone the trip or choose another destination – for those who bought tickets exactly a week after their booster to be at a family event, they make a huge difference.

“I think that decision-makers are completely detached from this,” said Lipman. “They are sitting in some office, making decisions just at the last minute and literally hurting people in the process and they have no idea.

“People are expressing a lot of pain, anxiety and stress. Many have been telling me that if they knew that their parents would not be able to be at the birth of their child, or their sibling at their wedding, they would have never made aliyah,” he added.

Yad L’Olim, he vowed, will continue to fight for better policies.

“If we have to, we will go to the streets and we will demonstrate because this situation is not acceptable,” Lipman noted.