Some 9,000 people have reportedly passed through Ben Gurion Airport so far Sunday as the cap on the number of travelers allowed in and out of the country expired at midnight following a High Court of Justice ruling.
It’s the highest daily number of passengers to pass through Israel’s main international airport since late January, Channel 12 reported. According to the network, more Israelis are leaving than coming in, with some 3,500 arrivals and over 5,000 departures.
Ben Gurion is handling some 60 incoming and outgoing flights on Sunday, as Israeli nationals come back into the country ahead of Tuesday’s elections, following weeks of stringent limitations.
The easing of restrictions comes as the coronavirus spread continues to rapidly diminish.
The High Court ruled on Wednesday that a government-imposed cap of 3,000 returning citizens per day disproportionately violated civil rights due to its sweeping and extended nature, as well as the proximity to the March 23 elections.
The coronavirus cabinet voted to end the cap in a meeting on Saturday evening. But it also approved limiting the number of daily flights to the airport’s “effective capacity,” with a joint statement from the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office citing testing and social-distancing requirements. The cabinet ministers also voted to scrap the Exceptions Committee that decided who was allowed into Israel.
In practice, the Foreign Ministry said in an announcement sent to its representatives worldwide, that means a maximum of some 4,000 incoming passengers and 4,000 departing passengers per day. Sunday’s numbers appear to have already exceeded those limits.
The cabinet also approved opening the Taba land border crossing with Egypt later this week, ahead of the Passover holiday, which begins Saturday night. Many Israelis use the week-long holiday to visit Egypt and its Sinai Peninsula. In the coming days, officials will decide how many people will be permitted to enter and exit through the crossing each day.
In an interview Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the High Court decision was “wrong-headed since it risks bringing [coronavirus] variants into Israel.” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had also criticized the ruling, calling it “irresponsible and contrary to the public interest.”
Israel’s land and air gateways had been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return, in an effort to prevent the potential arrival of coronavirus variants.
Meanwhile, Israel’s morbidity rates have continued to steadily decline as the country has been rolling back virus restrictions which at their peak shuttered the entire education system, public venues and most non-essential businesses. Most of the education system has since reopened, along with much of the economy. Limited audiences have been allowed at sports and cultural venues, with the coronavirus cabinet recently approving increasing capacity at such events.
Recent infection figures represent a dramatic improvement over the past two months, credited chiefly to a successful vaccination campaign. The success comes despite more infectious virus variants proliferating and the gradual lifting of restrictions.
Israel’s widespread vaccination campaign has seen over 4.5 million people receive two doses of an anti-COVID-19 shot while the rate of positive test results fell below two percent, as of Saturday evening.
On Wednesday, the Knesset gave final approval to a bill requiring those returning to Israel to self-isolate at home with an electronic bracelet or other technological means.
According to the bill, those who refuse to wear a bracelet, or are unable to isolate themselves at home, will be required to stay at one of the government-run quarantine hotels as an alternative.
Travelers carrying documentation showing they are fully vaccinated in Israel and those who have recovered from the virus can skip quarantine, provided they take a virus test just before the flight and on arrival in the country, and that both tests come back negative.
Those who have been vaccinated abroad must initially enter quarantine but may be released after a test showing they have antibodies, in addition to the two virus tests.
The election — the fourth in two years — was called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule, with a focus on his ongoing trial on corruption charges and his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Bachner contributed to this report.