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High Court orders reopening of Israeli airport and reverses ban on unvaccinated travelers

Chief Justice writes: 'Even in a pandemic, human rights and civil rights cannot be pushed underground'

Passengers at the Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Photo: Flash90)

The Israeli High Court of Justice has ordered the reopening of Ben-Gurion International Airport beginning Sunday, following a declaration on Wednesday that the government’s strict travel restrictions – including barring people who haven't been vaccinated – are unconstitutional.

“Even in a tough crisis such as the global pandemic, human rights and civil rights cannot be pushed underground,” Chief Justice Esther Hayut wrote in a dramatic reversal of government policy.

Israel’s international airport, outside Tel Aviv, has been largely closed since Jan. 25 due to fears of contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus entering Israel. Tens of thousands of Israelis were stranded abroad.

At the moment, only 3000 people per day are allowed to enter Israel, mostly Israeli citizens who are trying to get back home. Very few foreign nationals are currently allowed to enter the country and only after acquiring a special permission from the state. The High Court’s ruling means that all Israelis abroad who want to return and vote, can do so with just three days to go before the national election on Tuesday.

Hayut and justices Yitzhak Amit and Neal Hendel argued that the current airport travel restrictions “violate the basic constitutional right to enter and exit Israel, and other's rights at the core of the democratic fabric of life.”

In February, a comparative international study compiled by Israel Democracy Institute experts concluded that Israel’s travel restrictions were “unparalleled” in the democratic world. Israel remains the only democracy in the world, which currently restricts the entry and exit for its own citizens. While the report expressed understanding for combating the spread of the coronavirus, it warned that it could not be done at the expense of fundamental human rights for citizens, including the right to travel from and to Israel. In its ruling, the High Court justices arrived at the same conclusion as the Israel Democracy Institute.

“This conclusion is magnified by the fact that Israel is the only democratic country in the world where citizens have been so sweepingly limited in entering their country.”

However, Professor Nachman Ash, Israel’s coronavirus czar, criticized the High Court’s decision to reopen the airport, which will happen on Sunday.

“We have taken many steps to prevent this, and it is a pity that we are now putting people at risk. The High Court’s decision may bring the State of Israel closer to a wave of high morbidity right now,” Ash said.

While Ash’s statement should be understood within the context of his professional responsibilities, no other democracy has closed its skies to its own citizens for almost two months. In fact, countries such as Denmark and Austria have kept their respective airports open and still registered far lower morbidity rates than in Israel.

Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch also blasted the High Court’s decision to reopen the airport.

“The High Court is taking responsibility for the risk of mutations entering Israel. Good luck to us,” wrote Kisch in a tweet.

By contrast, the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians criticized the government for failing to find a workable solution for Ben-Gurion Airport that simultaneously addresses both public health and the freedom of movement for individuals.

“Unfortunately, instead of planning and implementing sustainable solutions at Ben-Gurion Airport and the borders, the government has issued illogical and impossible-to-apply instructions while creating problematic exemptions committees. This situation harmed both passengers and public health,” the medical association said. “We hope that following the High Court's ruling, the government will implement balanced professional solutions for the intelligent management of transit points and borders.”

Despite the High Court’s ruling, the Israel’s current government is reportedly seeking alternatives to curtail air travel by formulating new limitations on travel to and from Israel.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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