Jerusalem reportedly dismissed as baseless a threat Sunday by Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel that Kyiv would close its borders to Israeli pilgrims making their way to the city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah next month in retaliation for Israel deporting Ukrainian tourists.
“There is no basis for the threats of the ambassador of Ukraine in Israel about [Ukraine] closing its borders ahead of the Rosh Hashanah events in Uman,” an unnamed diplomatic source was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site. “Those in Ukraine’s government who are more senior than [the ambassador] made this very clear to Israeli officials.”
“Israel has proven its commitment to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, and continues to provide humanitarian aid to support Ukraine,” the source added. Kyiv has repeatedly called out Israel for refusing to provide Ukraine with weapons, while Jerusalem says taking such a step would risk upending its ties with Russia with whom Israel cooperates in order to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
The Israeli diplomatic source accused the Ukrainian ambassador of inflating numbers regarding deportations of Ukrainian refugees by Israel and claimed this “was not the first time that the ambassador has tried to create a media storm, thus harming the good relations between our countries.”
In a weekly address on Saturday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky urged that the “rights of Ukrainian citizens must be guaranteed,” after receiving a report on how nationals are treated in foreign countries, without explicitly naming Israel.
On Sunday, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk made it clear in a statement that Zelensky’s message was directed at Israel.
“The Ukrainian government will not tolerate the humiliation of its citizens upon entering Israel. We will suspend our bilateral visa waiver deals, according to article seven of the intergovernmental agreement,” Korniychuk stated.
“This possibility is on our government’s table,” he added. “It is unthinkable that we would have to go out of our way to host tens of thousands of Israelis in Uman, with a high-security risk and a huge logistical effort, while the Israeli government abuses our citizens who come to Israel within the framework of a treaty between the two countries.”
“If Israel wants its citizens to be able to come to Ukraine as tourists, including to Uman, I believe Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu should intervene personally to find a solution to the current matter,” he said.
In response, Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel rejected claims of mistreatment of Ukrainian tourists.
“Israel’s immigration policy welcomes tourists from many countries in the world, including from Ukraine,” he said in a statement. “In instances where there is a suspicion they are using their tourist visa unlawfully to work or settle down, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority [works to prevent this], according to its legal authority.”
He added that Israel had sent medicines to Ukraine, and said that his ministry would continue cooperating with Kyiv in health-related matters.
As part of a bilateral deal, Ukrainians can enter Israel and visit for up to three months. Due to the ongoing war in the country, Israel has extended the three-month visas of non-Jewish refugees after a cap limiting their entry was struck down by the High Court of Justice. Those with Jewish roots have automatic rights to become citizens under Israel’s Law of Return.
According to data from the Ukrainian embassy, in the first half of 2023, Israel deported 2,037 Ukrainian citizens, compared to 2,705 for all of 2022, the Ynet news site reported.
Korniychuk told The Times of Israel earlier this month that around 10 percent of Ukrainian tourists entering the country were being deported.
Israeli officials said at the time they did not believe that Ukraine would close its borders to Israelis.
Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
Despite travel warnings last year, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the Uman burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic master who died in 1810.
Those travel warnings are still in effect but are unlikely to deter worshipers.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyiv closed its borders in September to avoid an outbreak ahead of Rosh Hashanah. Thousands of would-be pilgrims traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine but were blocked by local authorities.
Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Jewish Tradition Minister Meir Porush were in Moldova to discuss the country’s readiness to handle the thousands of Jewish pilgrims expected to fly to Chisinau on the way to Uman. Ukraine’s airspace has been closed since the outbreak of war in February 2022, and Moldova is the closest neighboring country to Uman.
“The anticipated arrival of tens of thousands of worshipers in Uman is a great challenge,” said Cohen. “In my conversations with the president and foreign minister, I thanked them for their readiness to find the safest and most effective mechanism for those Israelis who choose to travel through Moldova this year on the way to Uman.”