Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday halted all flights to Israel until legal steps could be taken to allow the Home Front Command to transfer all travelers arriving in Israel to state-run quarantine hotels for 14 days.
Flights that are already en route to Israel will be allowed to land but no new flights will be permitted until the situation is resolved, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
The move came after some 70 passengers on a United Airlines flight from the virus-stricken New York area arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Saturday morning and were allowed to travel home in taxis without having their temperatures checked or filling in forms detailing where they would be quarantined for the requisite 14 days.
The incident came despite Netanyahu last week ordering all incoming passengers to Israel to be quarantined at specially designated hotels around the country.
However, legally passengers can’t be forced to move into the quarantine hotels, with neither the police, nor the military which operates the facilities, legally able to compel travelers to go there.
A Health Ministry source told The Times of Israel on Friday that passengers who could prove they could self-isolate were allowed to leave the airport independently and return to their homes, while those who could not were sent to state-supervised hotels for a 14-day quarantine period.
The official said that while the ministry would prefer for all passengers to be sent to hotels, complications deriving from a legal opinion submitted by the Attorney General were preventing that from happening. He called the opinion a “complete misunderstanding” of the situation.
No response had been received from the Attorney General’s office by the time of writing.
According to data from the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, approximately one third of infections in Israel are in people who have returned from abroad, Channel 12 reported, noting that many of those cases were in people traveling from New York.
The Saturday morning flight had received exceptional approval from authorities to land in Israel despite the current lockdown. According to Channel 13 news, only seven out of around 80 passengers on the New York flight were taken to quarantine hotels.
A Health Ministry official told Channel 13 news on Saturday that “the continued arrival of flights from New York and failure to transfer passengers to [specially designated] hotels is negligent.”
“All landings must be transferred to the hotels, which are mostly empty. People landing at Ben Gurion Airport refuse to move to hotels, and right now there is no real desire to force them as emergency regulations allow,” the unnamed official said.
Current procedure at Ben Gurion Airport is supposed to be that upon arrival, passengers have their temperature checked by Magen David Adom ambulance service personnel and have to fill out a questionnaire about their health and who they have been in contact with.
Health Ministry representatives are then supposed to hand a list of those passengers who were found to be at risk, or who did not sign a self-isolation guarantee, to the Home Front Command, which is then responsible for transporting those persons to a designated quarantine hotel. The hotels are also under the responsibility of the Home Front Command.
The Defense Ministry, which is in charge of implementation of the plan, has cited “legal and procedural complications,” that prevent it from sending all incoming passengers to quarantine and only enable it to send to quarantine hotels those passengers who have not signed a declaration that they have an independent arrangement for self-isolation.
In late March, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett presented a plan for mandatory quarantine of all arrivals. However, he later acknowledged that the plan had been shelved.
On April 1, a day after Bennett’s acknowledgement, Netanyahu reinstated the plan to require all arrivals from abroad to be quarantined in a hotel or other designated facility for 14 days.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office at the time said that the policy was effective immediately. Netanyahu promised in a national broadcast that it would be implemented right away, but passengers have continued to arrive in Israel and head home independently.
The Hebrew language Ynet website reported Thursday that incoming passengers on a United Airlines flight from New Jersey that landed earlier that day, in the midst of a particularly stringent nationwide closure imposed for the start of Passover, traveled home by taxi, despite an explicit prohibition on moving between towns.
One passenger told the website that he had signed the self-isolation guarantee although he did not in fact have any arrangement in place for the quarantine period.
“I still don’t know where I’ll go into self-isolation,” he said. “But first I’ll go home and then I’ll figure it out.”