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Opposition MKs rap virus czar for approving entry of 17,000 foreign students

Liberman warns Israel will pay a ‘heavy price’ for decision, accuses Ronni Gamzu of ‘failed decision-making’

Illustrative: Jewish men study torah in small groups at the Orot Shaul Yeshiva in Tel Aviv on July 7, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: Jewish men study torah in small groups at the Orot Shaul Yeshiva in Tel Aviv on July 7, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Opposition lawmakers on Monday criticized the official leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus, after he approved a plan to allow thousands of foreign students into the country.

According to a Health Ministry statement, 2,000 university students and 12,000 yeshiva students will be permitted to enter Israel for their respective programs. Another 5,000 participants in Masa programs, 500 high school exchange students on the Naale program and 1,500 people at private institutions will also be allowed into the country. A ministry statement said 17,000 students were being let in, though it was unclear how the figures were meant to match up.

MKs from the opposition laced into Ronni Gamzu, who was appointed to the post of coronavirus czar last month, for the decision, warning it would import infections and put more strain on the healthcare system.

“With all of Professor Gamzu’s diplomatic efforts, this is a failure in decision making,” said Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at a faction meeting. “This is a wrong decision and we will pay a heavy price for it.”

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman wears a protective face mask during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on June 7, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Liberman also warned the government against allowing Israelis to visit Ukraine in September, for a Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the tomb of a Hasidic master.

Another member of his party, MK Yulia Malinovsky, tweeted: “I hope Prof. Ronni Gamzu agreed to approve the entry of 17,000 students and yeshiva students for substantive reasons and not as a result of pressure. In addition, I hope he understands the consequences of this move.”

MK Merav Michaeli, a member of the coalition Labor party who votes with the opposition, petitioned the Interior Ministry, demanding explanations for the “serious discrimination” as family members of Israeli citizens have been denied entry into the country for months as a result of the pandemic.

“It was announced today that it’s been decided to approve the entry of 17,000 yeshiva pupils and students who aren’t Israeli citizens, while relatives of Israeli citizens have been refused entry for many months,” Michaeli wrote on Twitter. “I would like to ask: 1. In what world? 2. Why are yeshiva students and students allowed over relatives of Israeli citizens?”

After having indicated he would block the plan, Gamzu signed off on the decision Monday.

Students will be required to isolate in capsules of up to six people for 14 days after arrival. Only institutions that receive Health Ministry approval will be allowed to host them.

Gamzu instructed ministry officials to enlist special inspectors to oversee quarantine conditions at the institutions hosting foreign students.

“A violation of the [quarantine] conditions is a violation of the conditions of staying in Israel — and all that implies for both the student and institution,” the ministry statement warned.

The statement also appeared to defend the decision amid expected pushback.

“Prof. Gamzu stressed that in this complicated period there needs to be a balance between safeguarding public health and safeguarding the values of the country and the connection with world Jewry,” it said.

Gamzu said Sunday that any foreign students violating quarantine could be deported.

The announcement came after Gamzu criticized the decision to let in the students before the fall holidays in an interview Saturday. Many of the yeshiva students are expected to come from the United States, the country hardest hit by the pandemic.

Ronni Gamzu at a press conference on July 28, 2020 (YouTube screenshot)

“We need to do the wise thing here and prevent another conflagration,” Gamzu told Channel 12 news.

The decision Monday also prompted a shouting match between MK Eli Avidar of Yisrael Beytenu and ultra-Orthodox Shas MK Yaakov Asher during a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

“You’re killing your community,” Avidar yelled at Asher, the committee chair. Asher retorted by accusing Avidar of “anti-Semitism.”

The plan to allow foreign students into the country despite an ongoing ban against non-nationals arriving was agreed on last week by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of Shas.

On Friday, Edelstein noted that the program allowing the entry of foreign students was not formulated only for the ultra-Orthodox community. He said criticism of the decision was “anti-Semitism,” apparently referring to anti-Haredi sentiment.

Most programs for yeshiva studies are expected to begin around the last week of August. Universities and other programs start in September or after the holidays in mid-October.

The empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion Airport on June 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Last month, the Calcalist business daily reported that the cancellation of trips for Jewish youths and young adults due to the coronavirus crisis was set to cost the Israeli economy about $200 million.

In his Saturday interview with Channel 12, Gamzu expressed support for resuming air travel into Israel by mid-August.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, there are 25,167 active coronavirus cases in Israel, out of 73,231 recorded since the start of the pandemic. The active cases include 334 people in serious condition, with 100 on ventilators.

There have been 541 deaths from the virus.

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