Gov’t seeks ways to limit air travel despite court order to let in all Israelis

Virus czar slams High Court for striking down cap on number of Israelis permitted entry to country, warns it puts ‘the encouraging morbidity figures at risk’

Passengers walk in the arrivals hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
Passengers walk in the arrivals hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Israel’s national coronavirus czar criticized the High Court of Justice’s decision Wednesday to scrap restrictions on citizens entering the country, as the government was reportedly working to formulate new limitations on travel.

The ruling came less than a week before the March 23 elections and after nearly two months in which Israelis have been unable to freely return home. Currently, no more than 3,000 Israelis are allowed into the country per day.

Nachman Ash said the court decision could allow “dangerous variants” of COVID-19 into the country, undermining Israel’s recent gains in combating the pandemic.

“It is unfortunate that we are now putting the encouraging morbidity figures at risk. The High Court decision is likely to bring Israel closer to a high wave of morbidity,” he said in a statement.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash at Ben Gurion Airport on March 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, both members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, also slammed the ruling.

“The High Court is taking responsibility for the risk of mutations entering Israel. Good luck to us,” Kisch wrote on Twitter.

Levin attacked the ruling in an interview Army Radio, decrying the fact that “judges come and say ‘We’ll endanger all your lives for a constitutional principle from a non-existent principle.’”

But some health officials praised the High Court ruling.

“The solution to the variant problem is tests and quarantine alongside enforcement, not a hermetic closure. I say this based on what other countries have done,” Lion Poles, a member of the Health Ministry’s pandemic team, told the Ynet news site.

The head of the coronavirus ward at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem also said he did not believe the restriction on entry was needed and that travelers should be tested before boarding and upon landing.

“We don’t want to prohibit the entry of people but do it in accordance with… the [quarantine] guidelines,” Dror Mevorach was quoted as saying.

An anonymous Health Ministry official called the ruling “idiotic” and said the judges “stabbed us in the back.”

“Everyone’s an epidemiologist now,” the official fumed to the news site.

Another unnamed source told Channel 13 that the judges had “gone off the rails,” but Itamar Grotto, the former deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, told the network the ruling was appropriate.

According to Channel 12 news, government officials were weighing alternatives after the High Court ruled the restrictions must end Saturday, including raising the number of Israelis allowed to enter per day to 6,000-8,000.

Officials have already held several meetings on the issue and the network said the government could approve new restrictions that apparently would pass muster with the court. It said no official decision has been reached.

Airlines also appeared set to increase flights to and from Israel after the High Court ordered the removal of the daily cap of 3,000 Israelis permitted to enter the country each day.

An illustrative photo of a United Airlines plane takes off from Ben Gurion International Airport on June 18, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

United Airlines said it will resume regular service with 13 flights a week from Newark and San Francisco to Tel Aviv. Israeli airlines Israir, Arkia and El Al were also expected to announce the return of multiple routes, Hebrew media reports said.

In the High Court ruling, the justices said the current cap of 3,000 returning citizens per day disproportionately violates civil rights due to its sweeping and extended nature and since the regulations weren’t imposed based on concrete data and information.

Chief Justice Esther Hayut and justices Neal Hendel and Isaac Amit said the limitations as a whole “violate the basic constitutional right to enter and exit Israel, and others rights at the core of the democratic fabric of life.”

They ruled that aggravating factors are the proximity to the March 23 elections, the duration in which the restrictions have been in place without respite, the fact that they were imposed without significant prior notice, and the lack of a clearly stated date for their end.

The court added that “the threat of the coronavirus and its different variants isn’t expected to disappear in the foreseeable future, despite the success of the vaccination drive.” It called for a better balance between minimizing the threat of new strains entering the country and violating basic rights.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return, in an effort to prevent the potential arrival of coronavirus variants immune to the current vaccines. The country last week eased restrictions on air travel to the country, enabling thousands of citizens to return home.

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)

Also Wednesday, the Knesset gave final approval to a law bill requiring those returning to Israel to self-isolate at home with an electronic bracelet or other technological means.

The proposal passed its first reading last week and was then approved by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

The bracelet will be worn on either the wrist or the ankle and monitor the wearer’s location via Bluetooth and GPS, connected to a provided cellphone.

According to the bill, those who refuse to wear a bracelet, or are unable to isolate at home, will be required to stay at one of the government-run quarantine hotels as an alternative.

A previous law forcing returnees to stay in government-run quarantine hotels expired earlier this month, sending travelers home, where they are subject to police checks on their whereabouts. The punishment for violating the rules is a fine of NIS 5,000 ($1,500).

Travelers carrying documentation showing they have completed a two-shot virus vaccination or 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, with both tests being negative.

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