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ToI investigates

In Israel’s month-long COVID flight ban, staff of 20 handling 24,000 urgent requests

Almost 2 years into pandemic, entry and exit appeals are being reviewed on emergency basis, with consequent confusion and error, rather than within an effective, longterm framework

An arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 28, 2021, heads to a mandatory COVID test. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
An arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 28, 2021, heads to a mandatory COVID test. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Nearly two years into the pandemic, some involved in the government’s decisions and many of those affected say that Israel is still tackling COVID-19 restrictions with an approach befitting a temporary emergency, and is failing to dedicate the resources necessary to implement government decisions.

The real-world ramifications of the thinly stretched bureaucracy have been felt most acutely by anyone trying to travel to or from Israel. In the aftermath of the government’s November 28 decision to close Israel’s skies in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, something of an emergency has been created for would-be travelers and their families.

In the wake of the closure, Israelis who want to leave to a high-risk country or foreign nationals who want to enter Israel from any country must obtain a special exemption, which is granted primarily through an exceptions committee.

As the list of high-risk countries swelled last week to 69, it is little surprise that about 24,000 entrance and exit requests have been received in the month since the new border restrictions took effect.

What may be a surprise is that most of these ballooning requests will continue to be handled by a small staff of 10-20 individuals who make up said exemptions committee.

The panel is at this stage well-known to Israelis and would-be foreign visitors as the address for their requests to transit. However, few understand how this committee operates and how the policy it follows is set.

Arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In order to gain an understanding of how the process works, The Times of Israel contacted multiple offices and activists. Even among them, some cross-verification was necessary to get to grips with the somewhat convoluted procedures.

Two committees, two tracks

The exemptions committee is actually two parallel committees: one for Israelis looking to travel to a high-risk country, and another for foreigners appealing for permission to enter Israel. The committees are each staffed by about five members at a time, drawn from the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Population and Immigration Authority, which is responsible for setting Israel’s border policy.

There are two teams per committee (for a total of 10 people in each), and they “work around the clock,” according to a spokeswoman for the Authority. And, the term “committee” may be a misnomer, as the team members work as shift-mates, rather than evaluating cases collectively. This process is conducted out of Jerusalem.

Complicating the matter, there is a second possible approval track for foreigners seeking admittance into Israel: they can apply through their local Israeli consulates. These screen applications, and can directly approve applicants who fit the Foreign Ministry’s criteria.

Confusingly, the Foreign Ministry’s entry criteria are not perfectly aligned with the committee’s criteria, the latter being broader. Applicants who don’t meet the subset of legal reasons a consulate could approve – or, given the current confusion among consulates, are erroneously told they are not eligible – can then appeal their way to Jerusalem, where they are sent into the exceptions committee funnel.

An El Al flight takes off from Ben Gurion International Airport, October 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

According to the Population and Immigration Authority, of the approximately 20,000 applications that reached the exemptions committees since the November border tightening, 12,000 were accepted; 4,000, or one in five, were rejected; and the remaining 4,000 were sent back for additional documentation.

In other words, a staff of 10 to 20 processed 20,000 applications in a month, at the rate of 1,000-2,000 applications per member.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs put the total number of applications to date at 24,000.

Mistakes, confusion

At that rate, it’s little surprise mistakes are made. Jerusalem-based Mark Spiro applied Sunday to travel to New Jersey for his own wedding. While he was rejected the same day, his fiancée’s son’s application was accepted. The two, both holding dual US-Israeli citizenship, had “submitted the same documents.”

Criteria for an appeal to be granted — which currently include humanitarian cases, funerals of immediate relatives, one’s own wedding or one’s child’s, medical procedures that cannot be delayed, and the birth of a grandchild — are also set by a cross-office process.

“There is an inter-ministerial committee (including representatives of the Population Authority, the Health Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry) that meets once a week and examines where it’s possible to relax restrictions so as not to close completely,” a Population Authority spokeswoman said of the process by which entrance requirements are established. “There are basic lines, but when there are specific requests, we check them out.”

She added that there was a separate but parallel process for setting exit requirements, which could partially explain why there is sometimes misalignment between what qualifies for an entry and what qualifies for an exit.

According to Dov Lipman, former Yesh Atid MK and founder of immigrant aid organization Yad L’Olim, which has been active in deciphering government COVID policy and advocating on behalf of immigrants and Diaspora Jewry, this occurred recently with respect to grandparents wanting to fly to be present for their grandchildren’s births. While foreign parents were allowed to fly in, Lipman had to campaign for Israeli parents to be able to fly out.

Former MK Dov Lipman attends a committee meeting while a legislator, December 8, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The ever-shifting nature of the criteria can give the impression that “policy is an afterthought,” according to Lipman. “[These criteria] are very haphazard, not methodical, not scientific, and this is what we hope to at least change.”

Those who wish to travel often find themselves confused by the rules criteria and how to apply for permission under them. Shulamit Bell, an American whose daughter lives in Jerusalem, had trouble figuring out the current governing rules for flying to Israel for her grandchild’s birth.

“It was very frustrating because it was confusing. [Some sources] said births were not going to be part of the new exemption list… and we were told to wait,” Bell said. She eventually contacted Lipman’s organization, obtained updated information, and is now in Israel with her daughter.

Part of the issue Bell faced is that multiple sources put out rules, which can vary not only across offices but also languages, and there is no one source that collates the latest information. As a solution, Lipman has suggested naming a responsible party to unify and update all travel restriction information — what he calls a “coronavirus travel czar.”

Technical problems

Even when the rules are clear, execution has had its challenges. In addition to their persistent manpower issue, the exemptions committees rely on an online application system that some have described as unreliable.

Jerusalem-based David Max had been trying to apply for permission to fly to his brother’s Toronto wedding, but has faced technical challenges.

“The only way out is to apply to this Soviet-style tribunal that decides if you have freedom of movement,” Max said. “But I haven’t even gotten through. You fill everything out online and then the site doesn’t work.”

Upon calling the committee’s tech support line, Max was told that there had been intermittent problems since last Thursday. “If the system is down, at least let people know, at least work on it,” he said.

Ultimately, the website went back online on Sunday and Max was able to apply. The committee rejected him within a few hours, providing feedback that Max’s request to attend his sibling’s nuptials did not meet the “humanitarian” threshold.

“I’m happy to endure [limitations] when it’s necessary, but I feel like it’s unnecessary and bad judgment to run it this way,” Max said.

Before entering office, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was particularly critical of predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to COVID containment, which included a nearly three-month closure of Israeli skies, and the conduct of exceptions committees at the beginning of 2021.

But now with Bennett at the helm, and nearly two years into the pandemic, it would be hard to argue that Israel is doing any better. Rather, it still appears to be operating without a transparent, efficient process to enable travel.

An ongoing fixture

MK Gilad Kariv (Labor), who since June has chaired the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, which acts as a gatekeeper for certain COVID-19 measures, says this process is still messy because Israel has not yet accepted the coronavirus as an ongoing fixture that’s not about to end and that demands structure and resources.

MK Gilad Kariv chairs a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee at the Knesset, November 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Upon becoming chairman of the committee, “MK Kariv announced his intention to stop relating to the fight against COVID as an emergency, but rather to create a new legal infrastructure to align all efforts in the fight against the virus,” said a spokesman for Kariv.

The MK is working on a new COVID bill to address such challenges, which his spokesperson contrasted to the original law, passed under the Netanyahu regime “in an emergency environment that doesn’t fit today’s situation.”

Bennett’s office declined a request to comment for this story.

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