As travel exemption requests pile up, panel accused of issuing automatic rejections

Committee tasked with granting permission to those looking to fly to banned countries reported to have backlog of 15,000 petitions, with most of those considered being denied

A traveler seen at Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 19, 2021. (Flash90)
A traveler seen at Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 19, 2021. (Flash90)

Israeli authorities are reportedly dealing with a backlog of thousands of requests for special permission to fly to countries included in a travel ban, with complaints that the body charged with granting exemptions is turning away nearly all applicants.

Nearly 70 countries have been deemed “high-risk” by Israel, including the United States, Turkey, and most of Europe and Africa, as the country has sought to delay as long as possible the Omicron variant from penetrating its borders. Travel for Israeli citizens to high risk countries is forbidden unless granted permission from an exemptions committee.

“I wanted to travel to France because my grandfather is hospitalized in Paris with terminal cancer,” Israeli woman Avital Koletz told Channel 13 news. “Within a few hours, they had rejected my request and said ‘I did not meet the requirements.’ It was a form letter. If you are a grandchild of someone on their deathbed, you don’t meet the requirements.”

According to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, which controls entry and exit policies, exemptions can be given for those who live outside of Israel, for humanitarian or “special personal” cases, for the funeral of an immediate relative, for people getting married or their parents, for medical procedures that cannot be delayed, for professional athletes competing internationally and for lone soldiers, as well as a smattering of other reasons, including an unspecified “other.”

“I don’t understand how needing to say goodbye to my grandfather is not a humanitarian reason,” Koletz complained.

Tzachi Hager, an Israel native who said he has lived in the US for over 10 years, told the Ynet news site that he was rejected by the exemptions panel when he tried to return home after flying to Israel for a memorial for his mother.

“I don’t have a house here, I’m living in hotels, they don’t care,” he said.

Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 28, 2021 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

According to Ynet, most applications to leave are being rejected and lawyers who have normally been able to help clients navigate bureaucratic hurdles involved in the country’s various travel bans since the start of the pandemic say authorities are less willing to grant exemptions this time around.

Over 15,000 appeals to the exemption committee have yet to be dealt with, according to Channel 13, which did not cite a source for the data. At the same time, some have complained that the committee is speeding through the requests without considering them.

“There’s no answers, nobody to speak to, after two minutes they rejected my request,” student Noy Sweide, who had hoped to return to her university in Finland, told the channel.

The travel restrictions, which have been in place to varying degrees throughout the pandemic, were revived late last month and over the past two weeks the list of banned countries has ballooned to cover 69 nations, as the government has sought to curb rising infection numbers by keeping travelers carrying the coronavirus from entering or by keeping Israelis from getting sick abroad and then returning.

Travelers seen at Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 19, 2021. (Flash90)

According to the latest Health Ministry statistics released Thursday night, 1,420 new COVID cases were confirmed the previous day, the highest daily tally since October. The positivity rate also trended slightly upward, reaching 1.45%, compared to 1.24% a day earlier and 0.9% a week ago.

Ministry data showed that 371 of the new infections were among patients who had returned from abroad in the last 10 days, the vast majority from countries since deemed high risk.

It is unclear how many of the new cases are linked to the new Omicron variant. On Monday, the Health Ministry confirmed another 170 Omicron cases, bringing the known total to 341 overall. The ministry said at the time that another 807 infections were “highly suspected” to be Omicron cases, but it has not provided an update since.

The ministry said at the time that 234 of the confirmed patients had returned from abroad, and travelers made up approximately half of the suspected cases.

In a statement to Channel 13, the Population and Immigration Authority said that exemption requests “are considered according to uniform criteria, in line with guidelines published online. Anyone who thinks they were rejected without justification can turn to the appeals committee.”

Travellers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Government authorities have long been dogged over complaints regarding uneven enforcement of travel restrictions, both for those attempting to enter the country and those trying to leave. Last week, the country was pilloried by church leaders for what was described as a “racist” ban, after a Birthright tour group for young Jews was given permission to enter, despite Christian tourists seeking to enter for Christmas still being locked out.

Tourism industry figures have also protested the travel rules and were joined earlier this week by former Health Ministry deputy head Itamar Grotto, who argued that shutting down travel at this point would do little good and much harm.

“Even when you implement the most stringent measures, the virus will ‘leak out,'” he wrote, in a statement carried by Channel 12 news. “Beyond the obvious fact that Omicron has already penetrated inside Israel, it’s not clear what additional benefit there is in further delaying and preventing the entry of more cases from abroad.”

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