Interior minister rejects claims Ukrainians mistreated

Ukraine threatens to shut border to Uman pilgrims, citing Israeli deportations

After Zelensky expresses concern over rights of his citizens in foreign countries, Kyiv’s ambassador clarifies comments directed at Jerusalem

Jewish men in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, September 25, 2022. (Flash90)
Jewish men in the street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, September 25, 2022. (Flash90)

Ukraine over the weekend renewed threats to close its borders to Israeli pilgrims making their way to the city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah next month to retaliate for Israel deporting Ukrainian tourists.

In a weekly address on Saturday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky urged that the “rights of Ukrainian citizens must be guaranteed,” after receiving a report on how nationals are treated in foreign countries, without explicitly naming Israel.

On Sunday, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk made it clear in a statement that Zelensky’s message was directed at Israel.

“The Ukrainian government will not tolerate the humiliation of its citizens upon entering Israel. We will suspend our bilateral visa waiver deals, according to article seven of the intergovernmental agreement,” Korniychuk stated.

“This possibility is on our government’s table,” he added. “It is unthinkable that we would have to go out of our way to host tens of thousands of Israelis in Uman, with a high security risk and a huge logistical effort, while the Israeli government abuses our citizens who come to Israel within the framework of a treaty between the two countries.”

“If Israel wants its citizens to be able to come to Ukraine as tourists, including to Uman, I believe Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu should intervene personally to find a solution to the current matter,” he said.

File: Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk speaks during a conference in Jaffa, June 7, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

In response, Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel rejected claims of mistreatment of Ukrainian tourists.

“Israel’s immigration policy welcomes tourists from many countries in the world, including from Ukraine,” he said in a statement. “In instances where there is a suspicion they are using their tourist visa unlawfully to work or settle down, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority operates according to its legal authority.

He added that Israel had sent medicines to Ukraine, and said that his ministry would continue cooperating with Kyiv in health-related matters.

As part of a bilateral deal, Ukrainians can enter Israel and visit for up to three months. Due to the ongoing war in the country, Israel has extended the three-month visas of non-Jewish refugees after a cap limiting their entry was struck down by the High Court of Justice. Those with Jewish roots have automatic rights to become citizens under Israel’s Law of Return.

According to data from the Ukrainian embassy, in the first half of 2023, Israel deported 2,037 Ukrainian citizens, compared to 2,705 for all of 2022, the Ynet news site reported.

Korniychuk told The Times of Israel earlier this month that around 10 percent of Ukrainian tourists entering the country were being deported.

Israeli officials said at the time they did not believe that Ukraine would close its borders to Israelis.

Uman, 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Kyiv, typically attracts thousands of pilgrims for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

Despite travel warnings last year, over 20,000 Israelis traveled to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at the Uman burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a revered Hasidic master who died in 1810.

Those travel warnings are still in effect but are unlikely to deter worshipers.

File: Jewish pilgrims gather in front of Ukrainian border guards at the checkpoint Novaya Guta near Novaya Guta, Belarus, September 18, 2020. (AP Photo)

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyiv closed its borders in September to avoid an outbreak ahead of Rosh Hashanah. Thousands of would-be pilgrims traveled to neighboring Belarus in an attempt to cross the border to Ukraine, but were blocked by local authorities.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Jewish Tradition Minister Meir Porush were in Moldova to discuss the country’s readiness to handle the thousands of Jewish pilgrims expected to fly to Chisinau on the way to Uman. Ukraine’s airspace has been closed since the outbreak of war in February 2022, and Moldova is the closest neighboring country to Uman.

“The anticipated arrival of tens of thousands of worshipers in Uman is a great challenge,” said Cohen. “In my conversations with the president and foreign minister, I thanked them for their readiness to find the safest and most effective mechanism for those Israelis who choose to travel through Moldova this year on the way to Uman.”

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