Kyiv expresses anger at Israel for ending refugees’ health care benefits

Jerusalem officials looking into issue they say is a bureaucratic matter; joint preparations continue for annual Uman pilgrimage

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ukrainian Jewish refugees who fled the war in their country wait inside a hangar in the Moldovan capital Chisinau on March 15, 2022, before heading to the airport to board a plane to Israel. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
File: Ukrainian Jewish refugees who fled the war in their country wait inside a hangar in the Moldovan capital Chisinau on March 15, 2022, before heading to the airport to board a plane to Israel. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Ukraine lashed Israel on Thursday for what it said was the end of health insurance benefits for refugees from the ongoing war in the country.

“We are deeply disappointed and concerned at the recent Israeli government decision,” said Ambassador Yevhen Korniychuk from Kyiv.

“Not only does the Israeli government refuse to sell Ukraine protective measures against the murder of our citizens by the Russians — now Israel is also stopping medical assistance for refugees who fled to Israel from the threat of brutal killing in the hands of the Russians,” he continued in a statement.

He called on Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Welfare and Social Affairs Minister Yakov Margi to reverse the decision.

Israeli officials said they were looking into the matter, and added it was a bureaucratic problem that had to be resolved. The Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Kyiv has shown renewed frustration with Israel this week. On Wednesday, Korniychuk told The Times of Israel that Kyiv could close the border to pilgrims on the way to the city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah next month to retaliate for Israel deporting Ukrainian tourists.

Israeli and Ukrainian refugees arriving from Ukraine on a rescue flight are welcomed at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Speaking by phone from Kyiv, where he is meeting Ukrainian officials to prepare for the mass annual pilgrimage, Korniychuk said that Israel has been deporting around 10 percent of Ukrainian tourists who visit the country.

“We have let our feelings on this be known,” he said.

Israel’s envoy to Kyiv Michael Brodsky was in Uman Thursday meeting with the city’s mayor. They discussed reducing wait times for pilgrims entering the country and again as they head into the city, where they have to go through checkpoints and pay a $30 tourist tax to the municipality.

They also discussed arranging for members of the Israel Police to be present in the city for the pilgrimage as they were in the past, prior to the war.

As part of a bilateral deal, Ukrainians without a visa can enter Israel and visit for up to three months. Due to the ongoing war, Israel has extended the 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.

Ukrainian officials have repeated criticism of Israel throughout the war over its treatment of Ukrainian visitors.

Korniychuk has previously raised the possibility of Jewish pilgrims being turned away at the border because of security concerns.

A Russian missile attack on Uman in April killed 23, including 6 children.

Israeli officials said they did not believe that borders would be closed to Israelis.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk speaks during a conference in Jaffa, June 7, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Korniychuk said that if the pilgrimage does go ahead, he hopes that Israeli police officers will be present, as they are in most years. In 2022, police set up a command center in Kyiv, saying there were no locations in Uman that met their security requirements due to the conflict.

Despite travel warnings last year, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic rabbi who died in 1810.

Those travel warnings are still in effect but are unlikely to deter worshipers.

The city, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

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 pilgrims then traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine, but were blocked by local authorities.

“We do hope that the Israeli government will help us secure their own people,” said Korniychuk, adding that Israel should do what it can to reduce the number of pilgrims coming this year.

A crucifix faces the Jewish district in Uman, Ukraine, July 25, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

On Tuesday, 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 worshipers 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 to 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 that choose to travel through Moldova this year on the way to Uman.”

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