Israelis swamp passport offices at launch of marathon drive for travel documents

Interior minister calls for patience as authorities begin monthlong project, accepting passport applicants without appointment to tackle backlog

People line up outside the Interior Ministry office to renew their passports, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
People line up outside the Interior Ministry office to renew their passports, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

The Interior Ministry on Sunday launched a monthlong drive of extended hours and services to tackle a major logjam of Israelis who want to apply for or renew their passports.

With the opening of Operation Passport Marathon, long lines quickly formed at the four main Interior Ministry bureaus where it was offered — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba.

Israelis will be able to show up for passport services without an appointment as authorities seek to alleviate a backlog that has created a chronic shortage of time slots, exacerbated by bad actors who used bots to sweep them up and then offered them for sale.

The bureaus were still honoring appointments that had been booked, but early reports said that even those who had scheduled a slot were forced to wait a long time in line.

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel called on the public to be patient as the ministry tries to resolve the “passport crisis.”

“Dear citizens, I ask each and every one of you personally, set aside a day and prepare accordingly as it can take several hours,” Arbel said in a statement.

“And when you arrive at the bureaus, please be patient and respect each other,” Arbel said.

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel arrives the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The project is set to run from May 14 to June 15, with the four sites keeping extended opening hours from 7:30 a.m. till 9 p.m.

In addition, a temporary office is slated to open in Bnei Brak on Monday that will operate on an appointment basis to issue biometric passports.

For at least a year, various networks of hackers and bots have captured thousands of appointments in the government’s online system and sold them for up to hundreds of dollars, causing a serious lack of availability at Interior Ministry offices.

Those needing to make appointments to renew their passports have often been forced to wait months for an opening, especially in larger cities.

Arbel admitted that over the past two years, applying for a passport has become “an unbearable situation for many citizens.”

“It is important to us that anyone who wants to fly during the summer vacation and does not have a valid passport will have one issued,” he said.

“It’s expected that there will be long lines, congestion, pressure, and a lot of waiting time. We are aware of this and are working to make it as easy as possible,” he said.

People line up outside the Interior Ministry office to renew their passports, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

There is a special Hebrew-language web page for the monthlong operation, which includes details of the various services and options for paying fees ahead of arrival.

The Histadrut Labor Federation, the Finance Ministry, and the Population, Immigration, and Absorption Authority have reportedly reached an agreement for the project under which workers will be paid overtime. There will be two shifts of workers per day at the four main offices, and the Bnei Brak site will work 24 hours a day, accepting applicants in person during 14 of them.

The current long wait for passport appointments has its roots in the COVID-19 pandemic, during which international travel was severely curtailed and lockdowns limited both the government’s ability to issue new passports and the public’s interest in making such appointments.

This created a backlog of an estimated one million passports that need renewal, quickly leading to all available appointments being swamped last year when pandemic restrictions were removed. The issue has been exacerbated by the companies and bots taking advantage of citizens’ desperation and booking up appointments for sale.

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