Stranded Abroad, Israelis Blame Government for ‘Massive Failure’
Thousands still locked out of their own country as airport remains shuttered
After weeks of uncertainty and chaos, dozens of Israelis returned home on Wednesday, as an emergency Israir flight from the United Arab Emirates landed in Ben-Gurion International Airport.
The overjoyed passengers, however, were only a drop in the bucket of thousands of Israeli citizens still stranded abroad, waiting to finally return home after being locked out indefinitely, abandoned by their own government.
“I left with my three children for Bulgaria for only four days, back in late January. On the 24th, we packed our small suitcases, called a cab and headed for the airport. On the way there we see the news – all flights were canceled,” Elena, an Israeli still looking for a way back home, told The Media Line.
In an unprecedented decision, the Jerusalem government on January 25 announced the complete closure of its sole international airport. The rising number of new coronavirus infections and the continued spread of the UK and South African variants alarmed decision-makers, who heeded health experts’ advice and ordered Israel’s lone gateway to the world sealed shut.
“We realized we have nowhere to return,” Elena remembers. “I have pets at home, a job, a car in the airport car park that is racking up bills. My son has asthma, and we didn’t bring enough drugs. The hotels here cost a fortune. We have no clothes. It’s a nightmare.”
She has no idea when she’ll get back, and for the meanwhile has traveled from Bulgaria to Romania, where she, fortunately, has relatives she can stay with.
“One of my boys is stuck in Berlin. We tried to get flights from Frankfurt to Israel, but it’s so much bureaucracy. The Germans want one kind of test and the Israelis another, and each one costs hundreds of shekels.”
While the emergency closure decree was extended in early February, the Israeli government has approved a limited number of rescue flights, from Germany, the United States and Dubai.
Still, not everyone is allowed to return. Those wishing to board a flight must first appeal to a special interministerial exemption committee and present a compelling case, such as a close relative’s funeral, an emergency medical procedure, or a third-term pregnancy.
All citizens entering Israel will also have to present negative coronavirus tests, and will regardless be quarantined in designated motels for two weeks upon arrival.
“I’ll have to rebuild my business whenever I get back, I’ve lost a lot of customers in the past two weeks,” Elena says.
A spokesperson for Israel’s Border Crossings, Population and Immigration agency refused a comment request by The Media Line, saying, “The issue is handled solely by the interministerial committee.”
A spokesman for the special exemption committee told The Media Line that “at this point, the exact number of entry requests submitted to the committee cannot be determined, because of the volume and many double petitions. We can carefully estimate that 10,500 total requests (entry and departure from Israel) have been submitted, 4,500 of them approved. The number of approvals is expected to grow starting tomorrow, thanks to the committee’s reinforcement.”
Yanay Mizrahi flew with his father on a business trip to Dubai on January 10. They were joined by Mizrahi’s fiancée four days later, planning to return to Israel in 10 days’ time.
They’ve been stuck in Dubai ever since.
“We’ve spoken with the exemption committee, the Foreign Ministry, the Health Ministry, all of them. We haven’t heard back from anyone,” Mizrahi told The Media Line. “We’ve done three tests here already, all negative. I got my first vaccination before we left, and missed the second shot because I’m here.”
He estimates the cost of having to remain in the UAE for an extra two weeks to be 10,000 NIS, about $3,100.
Last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu again scratched his plans of flying to the UAE for a meeting with his Emirati counterpart. Since signing the Abraham Accords and normalizing relations with the Gulf nation in September, Israel’s prime minister has looked for a window to travel for the coveted summit and photo op.
Less than 40 days before a general election, and while hundreds of Israelis remain grounded in Dubai, Netanyahu’s advisers realized such a visit may do more harm than good.
“No other country in the world has deserted its own citizens like Israel has,” Mizrahi accused.
Despite leading the world in vaccinations administered per capita, and despite the nationwide lockdown now imposed for over six weeks, Israel has failed to drive down coronavirus infections, as new cases, serious cases and deaths remain stubbornly high.
Health officials have pointed to the virus’ variants, thought to be more infectious and deadly, as the main culprits.
Inbal Zissou is an Israeli living with her family in Brazil. Her mother-in-law, who came to visit them in early January, had her return flight booked for Jan. 24.
“We heard on the news that any flights departing before midnight would be allowed into Israel. Her takeoff time was 00:40,” she told The Media Line. “Eventually the airline canceled the flight, and the next one that we booked, for February 9, was also canceled, after the airport shutdown was extended.”
“We thought of sending her to Germany, for a rescue flight from Frankfurt, but that’s a very complex operation. It’s a long, complicated connection and she’s a 70-year-old with a heart condition who doesn’t speak English. We haven’t even received the exemption committee’s approval yet.”
Zissou says the heart medicine her mother-in-law must take is fast running out.
“Things are not ideal, to say the least.”
Maya’s boyfriend has been looking for a flight back from Florida for nearly three weeks. Back in Israel, she has been scrambling nonstop to try and receive the necessary permits for his return.
“I’ve filed a million forms, with no response. I’ve spoken with the [exemption] committee head’s office. Nothing happened. No one is helping,” she told The Media Line, exasperated.
Israel’s national airline, El Al, on Monday announced three rescue flights, slated to take off from New York’s JFK Airport over the weekend. Tickets for those without a canceled ticket will cost $600.
But not only Israelis marooned on distant shores are suffering.
Thousands of people in Israel waiting to return home to the United States and Europe have also been forced to scramble for solutions, most to no avail.
“There are about 3,000 people who had tickets to fly to the US alone, that can’t,” Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours, told The Media Line.
“People need to leave for work, to visit elderly parents. Obviously, there are emergencies. This week saw the first El Al plane allowed to fly to New York.”
Feldman’s solution was to send the desperate travelers to neighboring Jordan, through the countries’ land border crossing, and from there to find a flight back home. But the Jerusalem government, intent on keeping the nation airtight, quickly shuttered land and sea entrances as well.
“It’s a clusterf*ck,” Feldman says. “This is government policymaking at its worst. The fact that they are only today announcing that everybody who enters Israel will have to be tested not only when they get on the plane but when they land here, is a massive failure on the government. Why does it take until today? The lab has been open at the airport for four months!”
“We have been reactive the entire time, instead of creating an intelligent policy,” he continues. “There is zero reason for the airport to be shuttered closed to those who wish to leave. How can you forbid citizens to leave the country? It’s wrong, morally and ethically.”
Back in Romania, Elena is still looking for a way back home.
“It’s infuriating. They told us when we left, that if you had a return ticket, you’d be able to come back to Israel. We’re a nation of immigrants, where everybody has someone abroad. People traveled to take care of family and friends. No one planned on being stuck here this long. It’s impossible.”