Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is the country’s main lifeline to the world. It is what connects the world’s Jews. However in recent weeks it has been closed, with no clarity from the government when it might reopen.
The government is ostensibly concerned about different coronavirus variants, hoping to increase vaccinations and return to some semblance of a normal life. Lost in those discussions is a larger elephant: the lack of transparency and clarity on how travelers are quarantined, or what rules they must follow.
This has been a problem from the very beginning, in March 2020. In the first days of the pandemic, mixed messaging on who had to quarantine and how they would be tracked left many confused. While videos online showed police hunting down alleged quarantine breakers, those who returned from conferences and who were told to quarantine largely did so on their own volition. Getting straight answers was unheard of, as has been the case for too long over the last year.
Now, at the end of the first year of the pandemic, the same confusion continues. A jarring story this week of people forging documents to return to Israel, despite the closure, raises alarm bells. Why are people who forge entry permits able to board airplanes? Israel bills itself as the Start-Up Nation – but the country can’t even affirm if a document is forged prior to boarding people on a plane? The country that supposedly has the best security against terrorism in the world can’t spot a forged document? How can it be sure then that other people arriving are not forging their documents? Meanwhile, real Israelis with real-life problems are still stuck abroad without the option of getting home.
Coronavirus is a national security issue. We know this. We know not only because we have seen nationwide lockdowns, airport closures, and the use of the services of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Mossad, but because it is clear that the world must fight the pandemic like a war. Over 5,000 people have died in Israel. In other countries the death toll is even more staggering. But for countries that are efficient, forward thinking and smart, like New Zealand, the number of casualties can be counted on two hands. How is it that Israel has done so much right regarding vaccines, and yet been so incapable of streamlining the entry process at the airport?
All the failures of the past are important to record. Not only the mixed messaging on self-quarantines, but the fact that the Health Ministry and police don’t seem to know how to coordinate with one another. There is no clear database of who arrived, and when and where they are quarantining. Some were sent to hotels, others were sent home. Police checked in on some primarily when there were concerns over mutations from the UK or South Africa, but in other cases people just wandered into the country. How can it be? How did it happen that the tens of thousands who returned from Dubai were not even checked?
To get to Dubai people, had to have a PCR test 72 hours before arrival and then be tested again once they landed. Yet upon arriving in Israel there were no such rules. Even when there are rules, they appear to be obeyed only in a half-hearted manner. That is why one family with forged documents was allegedly deported but another has not been. There are “sensitive” reasons, we are told. No doubt that may be due to lobbying or connections of some people.
That is not how to run a country. The public needs to know that if we are being kept at home and not allowed to travel, others are properly quarantining and properly being tested and tracked. We are not asking for an Orwellian super-state to track our every move. But if you arrive from New York, the UK or South Africa, or transit through a country with COVID mutations, then you will need to be tested, tested again, and quarantined.
The government needs to be clear about what is happening. The country needs clarity.