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3,000 Israelis a day to be allowed to fly home, without need for permit panel ok

Top health official warns opening up airport without proper enforcement of quarantine could lead to arrival of vaccine-resistant variants and ‘catastrophe’

The almost empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion Airport on February 28, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
The almost empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion Airport on February 28, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The high-level coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday approved a plan to more fully reopen Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the upcoming elections, following criticism of the government panel that has been deciding which Israelis may enter the country amid the ongoing closure of the airport.

The move increases the number of Israelis permitted to enter the country to 3,000 per day starting March 7 and scraps the need to get entry permission from the Exceptions Committee.

Non-citizens will still require permission to enter Israel, while Israelis flying out who have not yet been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will need the committee’s approval, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Returning Israelis who haven’t been vaccinated will be required to isolate at home or at state-run quarantine hotels and undergo a coronavirus test upon arrival. Israelis who have been vaccinated aren’t required to quarantine, but must still be tested when they land.

The plan called to make enforcement of the quarantine requirement a “top priority” and to allocate 660 state-employed inspectors to assist police with enforcement. The statement said the government will also continue to advance “technological means” to monitor quarantine and the necessary legislation to use them.

The proposal must be still be approved by the full cabinet. And Transportation Minister Miri Regev said Tuesday she intended to only allow 1,000 people a day for the first week, in order to ensure the effectiveness of quarantine enforcement.

The decision came after an explosive television report over the weekend claimed that the vast majority of those entering the country have been ultra-Orthodox, thanks to supposed lobbying from Haredi lawmakers, while emergency requests from many other Israelis were denied. The report has been challenged by the prime minister, the transportation minister and by some other media reports.

According to Channel 12 News, health officials on Tuesday cautioned against the cabinet’s latest decision to ease restrictions on arrivals.

Passengers arriving on a flight from Frankfurt are given electronic monitoring bracelets to ensure they don’t violate quarantine. at Ben Gurion Airport, March 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The report said the head of public health services in the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, warned ministers that failure to properly enforce quarantine — as has often happened up to this point — could have dire consequences.

“We are seeing many mutations out there,” Alroy-Preis was quoted as saying. “We don’t want to find ourselves in a month asking ourselves ‘How did we allow this variant to enter the country unsupervised and create a catastrophe?’ We’ll all regret it. Variants could come in that the vaccine is ineffective against and the entire vaccination project will be thrown in the trash.”

Earlier Tuesday, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding it compell the Exceptions Committee to publicize its decision-making process for ruling on which Israelis to allow into the country.

“Unfortunately, it appears the Exceptions Committee makes its decisions arbitrarily, without any public transparency and while seriously harming the principles of good governance,” the Movement for Quality Government wrote on Facebook.

A technician collects nasal swab samples at the coronavirus lab at Ben-Gurion International Airport, on February 28, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Over the weekend, Channel 12 news reported some 90 percent of those approved to come to Israel during the closure were Haredi, while many secular people’s 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.

The report has been contested by many in the media, however. The Kan public broadcaster, citing airport data, on Monday said that the main flight spotlighted in the Channel 12 report as carrying predominantly Haredim had only 68 ultra-Orthodox passengers out of 260, of whom 30 had recovered from the virus and 18 were fully vaccinated.

The empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, February 3, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/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 and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return.

An Israeli think tank on Sunday said Israel’s denial of entry to its own citizens represented an extreme erosion of rights, unparalleled in the democratic world.

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