Air force pilots sent to train in US removed from return flight due to entry ban

2 Israeli aviators taken off plane and told that only one had a permit from controversial committee which gives exemptions to flight ban; eventually both allowed to fly home

Illustrative. Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force's 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative. Three pilots stand in front of an F-16 fighter jet as it takes off from the Israeli Air Force's 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Two air force pilots who were sent to the United States last week for advanced training were reportedly removed from an El Al flight ahead of their return to Israel due to coronavirus restrictions that have vastly limited the entry of Israelis into the country.

The two were taken off a flight to Israel by El Al staff after being told that they had not received the appropriate permission from the committee which gives exemptions to the current ban on entry, the Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper reported Sunday.

According to the report, they were then told by defense officials that despite having been sent to the US by the Israel Air Force for training, only one of them had been granted permission to return. After a series of calls, they were eventually both allowed back onto the flight, which had been held up due to the issue.

El Al told the paper that, “the pilots did not have a permit. We delayed the flight until it was received by phone.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that the pilots were supposed to have received permission to return.

“The trips for training abroad are planned in advance and approved by the Defense Ministry as well as by an exceptions committee. We emphasize that all flights are conducted with strict oversight and all participants in the training are vaccinated.” the paper quoted the IDF as saying.

The report, however, also quoted an unnamed source in the Air Force saying that, “The committee stated that leaving the country would not be approved even for professional training purposes.”

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad. Health officials are concerned that more contagious strains of the coronavirus could arrive in the country from abroad, as is the case with the so-called British mutation which now accounts for almost all new coronavirus infections in the country.

Following a television report last week that claimed the vast majority of Israelis being approved to enter the country during a general border closure were ultra-Orthodox, while many secular people were being denied, Benny Gantz, the defense and justice minister, warned Saturday he would not allow the continued closure of Ben Gurion Airport unless a Justice Ministry official takes part in the panel’s deliberations, and its criteria for approving or denying requests are made public.

Opposition politicians lashed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the report, accusing him of allowing only potential right-wing voters to arrive in the country ahead of the March 23 elections.

The Friday report by Channel 12 said some 90 percent of those approved to come to Israel during the closure were Haredi, while many secular requests were being denied. The network asserted that many Haredim were flying in using fraudulent permits, and that some had secured their authorizations through ties to ultra-Orthodox politicians.

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