Likud transport minister calls allegation 'fake news'

Gantz, opposition scrutinize claim Haredim let into Israel while secular denied

Following Channel 12 report, several parties accuse PM of allowing entry ‘only for his voters’ during airport’s general closure; but some in the media cast doubt on TV claims

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

Politicians expressed outrage Saturday and demanded scrutiny of the screening process for Israelis seeking to travel into the country, after a television report claimed the vast majority of Israelis being approved to enter the country during a general border closure were ultra-Orthodox, while many secular people were being denied.

Opposition politicians lashed 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.

But at the same time, some in the media cast doubts over the veracity of the Channel 12 report on the committee that okays individuals to fly on a small number of available flights, while right-wing and Haredi politicians strongly denied there was any truth to it.

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.

Benny Gantz (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Channel 12 reported that health officials have said they will not oppose the arrival of Israelis coming in to participate in the national vote.

The Friday report by 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.

But the Israel Hayom newspaper, seen as close to the prime minister, said Saturday it had spoken with several non-governmental officials with information on the committee’s work who insisted the report was far from accurate, and that the Haredi numbers were closer to 50%. The source noted that on some of the routes, these were the normal rates.

And Kan News aviation reporter Sharon Idan said the report was “a great injustice.”

“Favoritism will always happen,” Idan tweeted. “In all sectors. There are many Haredim on the rescue flights. There are many who are not. A great many. The attempt to create this image as though Haredim are being prioritized is in my eyes, a great injustice.”

Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid, January 5, 2021. (Elad Guttman)

Following the Channel 12 report, Knesset Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to look into the matter on Saturday. Lapid said the government was employing a skewed permissions mechanism at Ben Gurion Airport.

“Tens of thousands of Israelis are stuck abroad and the only citizens allowed to enter into Israel are the potential voters of Benjamin Netanyahu, Yaakov Litzman and Itamar Ben Gvir,” Lapid said in a statement, referring respectively to the premier, a leader of the Haredi United Torah Judaism party and the head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.

“It is not an Exceptions Committee, but a “Voters’ Committee,” he charged. “We will appeal to the Supreme Court, we will turn to the attorney general, we will stop this national scandal.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, whose ministry oversees the committee, rejected the allegation of political bias in its decision-making, saying Saturday night it was a thoroughly professional body, and that the claims of discrimination constituted “incitement” against the ultra-Orthodox community.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Channel 12 report was “fake news,” she said. “We know your agenda,” she said in an interview with the same channel. “We know that you want to hurt Likud.”

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri accused Channel 12 of “a venomous and ugly campaign against the Haredim, apparently out of political considerations.” He said the report was “distorted and deceptive.”

The Channel 12 report asserted that thousands of Israelis who are stuck abroad are being denied entry to the country, while the 2,000 daily passengers who are approved are mostly from the Haredi community. 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.

Like Lapid, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Labor leader Merav Michaeli also expressed outrage following the report.

“Litzman and Deri’s shady business at the expense of the secular community must end,” Liberman tweeted Friday.

Michaeli decried the fact that “only those associated with [Netanyahu’s] bloc get approval to enter Israel.”

In response to the Friday report, The Transportation Ministry said that “the Exceptions Committee works 24 hours a day and approves requests according to government policy,” adding that “attempts to pressure the committee using public officials or travel agents will not change the committee’s final decision.”

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks to Channel 12 news on February 22, 2020 (Channel 12 screenshot)

On Wednesday, two Haredi families who arrived on a flight to Israel from New York were found to have forged their entry permits.

In a separate incident this week, Israeli authorities were investigating claims that Haredi passengers on an El Al flight from New York had provided fake coronavirus test results before boarding the plane. Eleven Haredi passengers were later found to be carrying the virus.

The arrival hall at the almost-empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A woman on the plane claimed that she heard ultra-Orthodox passengers boasting that they had used fake coronavirus tests to get on the flight. Other passengers said that during the flight ultra-Orthodox passengers did not wear masks at times and that the cabin crew did little to encourage them to cover up.

Another passenger from the flight told Channel 12 that it costs just $15 to get a phony document claiming recovery from the virus.

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 empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, February 3, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Ministers approved Wednesday the reinstatement of a compulsory quarantine period in special government-run hotels for all those arriving from abroad, a day after the previous regulations on the matter expired.

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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