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Reporter's notebook

Mission possible for Israel’s relocated Ukraine embassy, despite car crash, COVID

Diplomats at the embassy’s HQ, now based in Poland near the border, describe the slowing stream of exiting Israelis and the growing demand for any other help they can provide

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

  • Simona Halperin, acting Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, at the embassy's mission in Przemyśl, Poland, March 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
    Simona Halperin, acting Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, at the embassy's mission in Przemyśl, Poland, March 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)
  • Ukrainian refugees receive medical aid at Przemysl's central train station, Przemysl, Poland, March 14, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Ukrainian refugees receive medical aid at Przemysl's central train station, Przemysl, Poland, March 14, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
  • Alex Ben Ari, spokeswoman of the Israeli Embassy to Ukraine, at the Embassy's mission in Przemyśl, Poland, March 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)
    Alex Ben Ari, spokeswoman of the Israeli Embassy to Ukraine, at the Embassy's mission in Przemyśl, Poland, March 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

PRZEMYŚL, Poland – Since decamping from Kyiv to Lviv in late February, and then onwards to its current home in a Soviet-style Polish border town hotel, Israel’s Embassy to Ukraine has faced challenges both related and unrelated to the war.

Despite doubling as a regional base for Polish police forces, the hotel – its name is being withheld at the Israeli embassy’s request – is eerily unlit and quiet. That is, until you open the door to the embassy’s situation room. Exhaustion is apparent on every face, but the energy is palpable. Here, an overworked staff buzzes with purpose, coordinating consular services, humanitarian aid, and outreach back to Kyiv.

Nearly three weeks into the war, the flow of Israelis out of Ukraine is slowing, but challenges continue to mount.

The acting head of the Israeli mission to Ukraine, Simona Halperin, was diagnosed with COVID-19 minutes before The Times of Israel arrived at the hotel on Monday. Halperin, who leads the Foreign Ministry’s Eurasia bureau from Jerusalem, is in the role because Michael Brodsky, Israel’s envoy to Kyiv, was in a car accident and had to be repatriated to Israel.

Operationally, the mission’s continued ability to help Israelis obtain the documents they need to leave Ukraine rests upon the goodwill of the Ukrainian authorities.

“Everything is dependent on the relationship between Ukraine and Israel,” said spokeswoman Alexandra Ben Ari. “We have to be very careful with what we do because it’s not our country.”

Alexandra Ben Ari, spokeswoman of the Israeli Embassy to Ukraine, at the Embassy’s mission in Przemyśl, Poland, March 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Israelis have been asking mission staff to cherry-pick them from the hours-long lines of people at crossings but, Ben Ari said, “everything is very sensitive” and “the [Ukrainian officials] at the border wouldn’t accept” such behavior.

Dual citizens are especially complicated, as Ukrainian men ages 18-60 are subject to an emergency order that bars them from leaving the country because they may be needed for national defense.

While mission officials say they try to do what they can, often this results in family separation.

Halperin described the mission as purpose-driven, full of morale and a desire to evacuate as many Israelis as possible. The joint operations room has been staffed by diplomats who, having completed their specific assignments elsewhere, have rolled up their sleeves to find ways to contribute. Former ambassadors volunteered to come to answer phone calls, and everyone makes runs to the border. When they’re ready to rotate out of Poland, a line of diplomats waits to fill their places.

Still, Halperin expressed frustration with decision-makers in Jerusalem, in connection to a lengthy dispute about work conditions between Foreign Ministry employees and the Finance Ministry.

“I am proud and astounded by the commitment and presence [of the diplomats]. From the 60-plus diplomats who were deployed on the border, there was not one who said ‘I can’t’, ‘I have family obligations,’ ‘it’s uncomfortable for me,’ ‘it’s not appropriate for me.’ Everyone enlisted,” Halperin said.

“But there are areas in which we’re suffering huge blows, both in our capabilities and our work tools.”

Among grievances related to the Pzremyśl mission, Halperin listed the recent cancelation of danger pay for diplomats in Ukraine, as well as a Finance Ministry decision to reclassify posting-related language lessons as taxable benefits.

“If I had worked in a private office [with these employment conditions], the first thing I would do would be to pull the plug. But the plug here is Ukraine. We’re not pulling the plug because we have too much responsibility and moral commitment. But we ask the Finance Ministry to understand.”

As Halperin noted, the mission continues to deliver.

Its primary focus is consular services “to help Israelis leave,” said spokeswoman Ben Ari. Unable to issue passports, the mission provides laissez-passer – temporary travel documents that give the bearer the right to fly to their home country – to Israeli citizens who have fled the Russian invasion without documents, or for their unregistered children born abroad for whom they never obtained passports.

Using a laptop on a folding table, the mission has the ability to verify identity through ID numbers and produce travel passes valid only for passage to Israel. Pictures are printed with a Polaroid camera that diplomats scrambled to find in a local photography shop.

Ukrainian refugees receive medical aid at Przemysl’s central train station, Przemysl, Poland, March 14, 2022 (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

Fewer Israeli evacuees

However, that consular work is slowing to a crawl in recent days. Almost three weeks into the war, about 10-20 Israelis are now heading home each day, Ben Ari said — only a fraction of the approximately 100 people the mission ferries out daily via organized buses across the three Polish border crossings where it operates. The rest are family, friends, or fellow refugees who learned about the Israeli buses by word of mouth.

With the dwindling numbers of Israeli evacuees, the mission has expanded its evacuation service to “anyone with a connection to Israel.” In practice, “we aren’t checking” and aren’t turning refugees away, said Halperin.

The mission doesn’t run a set schedule, but rather makes daily determinations based on demand at the Medyka, Krakowiec, and Zosin border crossings. The embassy’s local Ukrainian staff decamped with it to western Ukraine, and remains on the ground to coordinate evacuation efforts.

The mission estimates that about 2,000 of the 15,000 Israelis who lived in Ukraine before the invasion are still in the country, a number that has barely changed in the last week because many can’t leave, either due to infirmity or because they are male Ukrainian citizens ages of 18-60 and subject to a martial law order that they remain to defend the homeland.

What Israel does and doesn’t do

In the joint ops room, run out of a large, characterless but well-lit room in the otherwise gloomy mid-range hotel, everyone has a story.

Rogel Rachman, a media specialist for the mission, shared that on a recent evacuation mission, he had to deliver hard news to an Israeli father that while he could join the bus, he would likely be refused at the border by Ukrainian authorities and have to trudge back kilometers in the cold. The family chose to separate, with the mother and children continuing out and onward to Israel, while he stood behind the bus, watching them leave.

The mission is also a coordination point for Israel’s humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, including the movement of aid and supporting logistics for the field hospital that the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry, and Sheba Hospital are expected to establish outside of Lviv later this week.

An advance team member for the MFA, MOH, and Sheba Hospital-sponsored field hospital to be erected outside of Lviv, Ukraine, outside of the Israeli Embassy to Ukraine’s mission in Przemyśl, Poland, March 14, 2022. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/The Times of Israel)

An expected transfer of six massive generators – each with the ability to self-sustain a hospital – has been delayed a few days, because of the mission’s current coronavirus scare.

The generators were sourced from Italy and arrived at the Ukrainian border on Monday night.

Absorbing the change

Halperin declined to speak directly about Israel’s refusal to provide defensive aid to Ukraine, pointing instead to the economic concept of “comparative advantage,” in that “we give what is most appropriate for Israel to give, tied to what Ukraine needs.”

“We let other countries do [the rest] and its okay. It’s right for Israel to give what it is expert in, without going to a place that endangers [Israel’s interests].”

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, has been increasingly vocal about his disappointment that Israel has declined requests to provide defensive aid to the Ukrainian military, including helmets and flak jackets.

Last week, Korniychuk made a dramatic plea to the Israeli media, placing a helmet on his head during a press conference and asking how it could be considered military aid.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk gives a statement to the media on the Russian invasion to the Ukraine, in Tel Aviv, March 7, 2022 (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

“I understand the emotions that cause him to express himself the way he does,” said Halperin. “He sits in Israel, and his family is in Ukraine, under a day of shelling. He sees his government under attack and his state fighting for its life. I understand his pain.”

“Whether the criticism is constructive? I’d say less so.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reverberates into the complicated relationships among the Russian Federation and its former Soviet states and satellites. Halperin, wearing her hat as the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Eurasia Bureau, said that Jerusalem is still evaluating how the war will impact Israel’s broader regional policy.

“Every country in the area has absorbed and will continue this year to absorb a big change in the whole landscape — economic, political, social. We have to evaluate how this will affect Israel’s foreign relationships with these countries, and the Jewish communities inside them.”

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