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Israel’s entry ban on citizens ‘unparalleled in democratic world,’ watchdog says

Israel Democracy Institute experts say sweeping restriction on Israeli nationals is extremely problematic from constitutional perspective, could infringe on right to vote

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on February 3, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on February 3, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Israel Democracy Institute on Sunday challenged Israel’s coronavirus restrictions on entry to the country that have left thousands of Israelis stranded abroad, saying they constitute an extreme erosion of rights that could infringe on citizens’ rights to vote in the March 23 elections.

The institute submitted an opinion paper to Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri which said that the sweeping restrictions on Israeli citizens’ ability to return to the country from overseas are “extremely problematic from a constitutional perspective and are without parallel in the democratic world.”

The authors of the opinion, Prof. Yuval Shany, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Dr. Amir Fuchs, Dr. Guy Lurie, and Nadiv Mordechai, compiled a comparative study of democracies across the globe that found Israel’s restrictions to be the most severe. Currently, all entry and exit to the country is banned, including for citizens, except for travelers whose entry has been approved by the government-appointed “Exceptions Committee.”

They noted Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, New Zealand, Russia Sweden and the United States as countries with varied records on battling the coronavirus pandemic and various different restrictions for foreign travelers, but all allowing their own citizens entry into the country.

“In view of every person’s constitutional right to leave Israel and every citizen’s right to re-enter the country, a general prohibition on entry and exit is not in the spirit of the provisions of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. There is a concern that the erosion of the rights affected is not proportionate, but rather extreme, even in view of the current health challenge,” the researchers wrote.

“This mechanism has been implemented following the State’s inability to effectively enforce a quarantine on those returning to Israel. This failure has led to the adoption of an approach that provides greater harm to the rights of citizens than quarantine and has left many Israelis as exiles abroad during a global health crisis,” they said.

The departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/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 airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad. Health officials are concerned that more contagious strains of the coronavirus could arrive in the country from abroad, as is the case with the so-called British mutation which now accounts for almost all new coronavirus infections in the country.

The authors of the IDI opinion said that “the extreme changes in policy — from one of a fully open airport, to a complete closure without warning, catching unawares citizens who traveled abroad lawfully, with the full expectation that they would be able to return, and without giving them a chance to prepare accordingly — creates intolerable human situations.

“The State must find an answer that is epidemiologically sound and constitutionally proportionate and must permit citizens to return home without delay,” they said.

The opinion also stated that restrictions on entry by citizens and permanent residents at this time could infringe on the right to vote in the upcoming elections as Israelis must be present in the country in order to cast their ballot.

The opinion was submitted days after a television report last week claimed the vast majority of Israelis being approved to enter the country were ultra-Orthodox, while many secular people were being denied.

Opposition politicians lashed out at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the report, accusing him of allowing only potential right-wing voters to arrive in the country ahead of the March 23 elections.

Channel 12 said some 90 percent of those approved to come to Israel during the closure were Haredi, while many secular 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.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Benny Gantz, the defense and justice minister, warned Saturday he would not allow the continued closure of Ben Gurion Airport unless a Justice Ministry official takes part in the panel’s deliberations, and its criteria for approving or denying requests are made public.

Gantz also said he would demand that the government make immediate plans to allow any Israeli wishing to come to Israel to vote in the elections to do so.

National elections — the fourth in two years — were called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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