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Israelis outraged over 'politicized' airport closure that keeps some citizens out, allows some in

Democracy Institute: Israel’s travel restrictions are "unparalleled in the democratic world"

The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Anger was growing in Israel on Sunday after reports emerged that a screening process to grant exceptions allowing Israelis stranded abroad to return to the country appeared to be politicized and tilted in Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s favor.

On Saturday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz demanded a probe of this screening process. The outrage followed a Channel 12 report claiming that the large majority of Israelis allowed to return to the country come from the ultra-Orthodox population, who are more right-leaning and whose political parties tend to support Netanyahu.

The same report also claimed that secular Israelis, who generally tend to be more critical of Netanyahu, were disproportionately denied entry to Israel. While the ultra-Orthodox constitute approximately 12% of Israel’s population, the TV report claimed that they represent some 90% of all stranded Israelis permitted to return to Israel.

Israel’s international Ben-Gurion Airport has been closed since Jan. 25, leaving some 25,000 Israelis stranded abroad. Currently, only limited numbers of Israelis are allowed to return to Israel after being approved by a special government-appointed committee. Following the outrage, Transportation Minister Miri Regev is reportedly proposing a plan to bring all stranded Israelis home before the election. 

Gantz warned on Saturday that he would block a continued airport closure unless there is full public transparency in the committee’s criteria for deciding which Israelis stranded abroad may return. Gantz also demanded that all Israelis who wish to return to Israel and vote in the election are allowed to do so. Elections will be held on March 23.

In a letter addressed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, opposition party leaders Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman demanded a lifting of the airport closure, accusing Netanyahu of using it as a political tool to boost his chances of winning the election. 

“What is happening at Ben-Gurion Airport is not an Exceptions Committee, but an Elections Committee. Only supporters of Netanyahu, [United Torah Judaism party MK Yaakov] Litzman, and [Otzma Yehudit party head Itamar] Ben Gvir receive permission to come in,” Lapid said

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar joined the criticism against the alleged politicization of the airport closure. 

“There is no logic in continuing the violation of civil rights and the return of Israelis should not be conditioned on a politicized “who you know” committee,” Sa’ar stated

Meanwhile, experts from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) warned on Sunday that Israel’s current entry ban on thousands of its citizens is "unparalleled in the democratic world" and constitutes an extreme erosion on their citizen rights and rights to vote in the March 23 election.  

In a comparative study of democracies worldwide, authors Prof. Yuval Shany, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, Dr. Amir Fuchs, Dr. Guy Lurie and Nadiv Mordechay concluded that Israel’s travel restrictions are the most extreme among democratic countries. The report compared Israel to Western democracies such as Canada, Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Sweden, New Zealand and even authoritarian-ruled Russia. While these countries have imposed different restrictions on foreign travelers because of the pandemic, these countries do allow their own citizens to enter. Israel was the only country that severely restricted exit and entry of its own citizens. 

“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 concluded in the damning study. 

Following a police complaint filed against the airport closure exceptions committee, the Cabinet will decide whether to allow all approximately 25,000 stranded Israelis to return to Israel and vote in the upcoming election.

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

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