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Amid outrage over COVID entry ban, Israel may let all citizens fly home to vote

Regev says cabinet will consider scrapping controversial permits system for Israelis wanting to either leave or return, which critics say is politically influenced, undemocratic

Ben Gurion Airport stands nearly empty, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Ben Gurion Airport stands nearly empty, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Transportation Minister Miri Regev said Sunday that her ministry would propose a plan to the cabinet whereby all Israelis abroad would be permitted to return to Israel to vote in next month’s elections.

Regev said that entry will be granted without the requirement of permission from the controversial permits committee, which opposition politicians say has been used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow only potential right-wing voters to arrive in the country ahead of the March 23 elections. Regev denies that allegation.

The minister told reporters in a briefing that the Health Ministry would need to examine whether the state-run coronavirus hotels would be used for quarantine or if travelers would be permitted to self-isolate at home, perhaps using electronic bracelets to monitor their location.

Additionally, Regev said the Israel Police would need to increase the enforcement of restrictions on those who have flown back.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev visits a new coronavirus laboratory at Ben-Gurion International Airport, on November 9, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Channel 13 news reported that around 40,000 Israelis were thought to be considering returning — 25,000 of them to vote and a further 15,000 who have submitted requests to the committee, many of whom are stranded abroad.

The outlet said the permit requirement for leaving Israel will also be scrapped.

Regev clarified that the committee system would not be canceled immediately and that officials had accepted the demand from Benny Gantz, the defense and justice minister, that he appoint an official to take part in the panel’s deliberations.

Gantz made the demand following widespread criticism after a television report last week claimed the vast majority of Israelis being approved by the committee to enter the country were ultra-Orthodox, while many secular people were being denied.

Ministers will discuss all elements of the proposal at a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday.

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 and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return. Entrance into the country — for a maximum of 2,000 people a day — requires special permission by the government that is granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of a flight.

Channel 12 said last week that some 90 percent of those approved to come to Israel during the closure were Haredi, while many secular people’s 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.

In the Sunday briefing to reporters, Regev denied any political interference or influence in the decision-making process of the committee, Channel 12 reported. In a Saturday evening interview with the same outlet, she called the accusation “fake news” and “incitement” against Haredim.

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

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, however unnamed sources from the Health Ministry told Channel 13 news on Sunday that Israelis should be permitted to fly back.

“It is clear to us that these Israelis must return. The only question is how to do it right,” the source said.

The Israel Democracy Institute on Sunday said the restrictions on entry marked an extreme erosion of rights that could infringe on citizens’ right to vote in the elections.

A woman takes a photo at the deserted departure hall at Ben-Gurion Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on January 25, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

The institute submitted an opinion paper to Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri which said that the sweeping restrictions on Israeli citizens’ ability to return to the country from overseas are “extremely problematic from a constitutional perspective and are without parallel in the democratic world.”

“In view of every person’s constitutional right to leave Israel and every citizen’s right to re-enter the country, a general prohibition on entry and exit is not in the spirit of the provisions of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. There is a concern that the erosion of the rights affected is not proportionate, but rather extreme, even in view of the current health challenge,” the researchers wrote.

“This mechanism has been implemented following the State’s inability to effectively enforce a quarantine on those returning to Israel. This failure has led to the adoption of an approach that provides greater harm to the rights of citizens than quarantine and has left many Israelis as exiles abroad during a global health crisis,” they said.

The departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The opinion also stated that restrictions on entry by citizens and permanent residents at this time could infringe on the right to vote in the upcoming elections as Israelis must be present in the country in order to cast their ballot.

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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