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Cabinet extends near total shutdown of Ben Gurion Airport for two more weeks

Committee will make exceptions for Israelis with special circumstances; those who left country before January 25 will be allowed to return

Illustrative: A man walks through the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 24, 2021 (Flash90)
Illustrative: A man walks through the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 24, 2021 (Flash90)

The government announced Friday that Ben Gurion Airport would remain closed until at least February 20 as Israel seeks to prevent the entry of new coronavirus variants that have contributed to the latest, unrelenting spike in case numbers.

Israel’s main international airport has been almost entirely shuttered since January 25, except for cargo planes and emergency aircraft.

Departing flights during this time have been limited to those traveling for medical treatment, essential work, legal proceedings, a funeral of a relative, non-citizens leaving the country and those traveling from one residence to another. Those needing to travel for other circumstances have been allowed to file their case to an inter-ministerial committee for review.

For the next two weeks all requests for entry and exit will need to receive approval from that panel, which will be headed by Tzachi Hanegbi, who heads the Ministry of Community Affairs.

Entry will also be granted to Israeli residents in the third trimester of pregnancy. Non-citizens, including candidates for pending immigration and professional athletes, who require entry for extenuating circumstances can also appeal to Hanegbi’s committee.

An almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Citizens who left the country before January 25 and have since been stranded abroad due to the near-complete shuttering of Israeli skies will also be allowed to return to the country as early as Sunday and will be immediately transferred to quarantine hotels upon arrival. They will remain there for two weeks, or ten days if they test negative twice upon arrival.

The government has been increasing its precautionary measures in recent weeks in order to prevent a widespread outbreak of the British and South African variants of the coronavirus.

Despite Israel’s highly successful vaccination program and a month-long lockdown, it has struggled to bring down virus numbers, with the death toll crossing 5,000 on Thursday.

Ministry figures showed that there were 1,101 people in serious condition and 7,183 new cases reported Thursday.

By Friday afternoon 3,390,398 people had received one dose, of whom 1,986,370 had received both doses.

Earlier this week, a senior health official said Israel may start quarantining vaccinated people returning to the country, even after Ben Gurion’s reopening — a policy shift that would undermine the much-touted notion of a “green passport.”

Israel had been among the nations most enthusiastic regarding the possibility of a certificate that would allow quarantine-free travel for vaccinated people. But the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus in recent weeks has led to a sea change in government thinking.

The main Health Ministry concern is that vaccines may fail to protect people from getting sick with some variants — a worry that has not been definitively confirmed or disproven. It is also not known for certain whether vaccinated people can carry and transmit the virus, even if they don’t get sick.

On Monday Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, updated a Knesset committee on the matter of quarantine exemptions for people who arrive in Israel. She said that the new circumstances mean “we’re now in a situation of needing to reevaluate this whole issue.”

She added: “Currently, those who return from abroad and are vaccinated, are not required to isolate, but a reexamination is needed.”

Such a shift would not much impact incoming tourism, which has been virtually nonexistent for much of the past year, with travel into the country mostly limited to citizens. But it will dash the hopes of many Israelis to more freely travel overseas once their vaccine immunity kicks in.

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