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With country 'hermetically' sealed, why are foreigners permitted to enter Israel for judo competition?

As Israelis remain stranded abroad due to airport closure, some 500 athletes, coaches coming to Israel for indoor judo meet in Tel Aviv

Judo Grand Prix 2020 in Tel Aviv (Photo: All Israel News)

With draconian restrictions on its own citizens including Israelis stranded abroad while the airport remains closed, citizens here are wondering how an international judo competition will take place in Tel Aviv this week with more than 500 foreigners.

Israel has boasted a hermetic seal on its country — including the closure of Ben-Gurion International Airport to commercial air traffic into and out of the country since Jan. 25 — in order to control the spread of the coronavirus.

But, in addition to the judo competition, the president of Cyprus and the prime minister of Greece made state visits to Israel in the past week with no apparent quarantine as is required of any Israeli who returns to the country. Israelis returning from abroad are required to quarantine in state-run facilities for 10 days if two COVID tests come up negative and 14 days with no testing.

The Judo Grand Slam is scheduled for Feb. 18-20 with 431 competitors from 63 countries. According to the organizers, all athletes who arrive in Israel will undergo a coronavirus test in Israel and remain in isolation in their hotel room until they get negative results.

Among them is exiled Iranian judoka, Saeid Mollaei, who faced sanctions in Iran after he was ordered to throw a fight in order to avoid facing Israel’s Sagi Muki in the next round during a 2019 competition.

Israeli world champion judoka Sagi Muki, right, and Iranian champion Saeid Mollaei embrace at the Paris Grand Slam, Feb. 10, 2020 (Photo: screenshot Instagram)

Mollaei has since fled Iran and will represent Mongolia now in the Judo Grand Slam and the International Judo Federation has banned Iran from international competitions.

Israel’s Muki said he and Mollaei have since become friends.

“This is a great message to the world,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “This is something that can even bring Iran closer to Israel. It simply shows how sports can bring together people and break boundaries.”

The Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, told ALL ISRAEL NEWS: “Israel has closed its gates to avoid the additional mutations of the virus from coming into the country and is working hard to bring back stranded Israelis. Judo is one of the sports that not only Israel excels in but over the years has served as a bridge to peace between Israel and many countries around the world. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to cancel it.”

Nevertheless, as Israel is still rolling back restrictions from its third national lockdown, including limits on gatherings both indoors and out, the Tel Aviv arena hosting this judo event appears to be an exception to this rule as well.

According to Ynet, two Israelis businessmen, Eyal Greenberg and Eli Salpter, are among those stuck abroad having flown to Frankfurt only to be refused seats on a “rescue flight” back to Israel. The two were forced to continue on to the United Arab Emirates and wait there.

“Our husbands came to Germany on flights from the U.S., they then flew to Kiev, and from there to Istanbul, but now they must leave for the only country that is willing to accept them - the United Arab Emirates,” Meirav Greenberg said. “I’m absolutely livid and disappointed at my own country.”

Yael Salpter said her husband hasn’t been able to work for almost a year due to coronavirus restrictions. He finally took the chance to fly and save his business, only to get locked out of the country.

"My three children and I have been waiting for two weeks for the Exceptions Committee in the Health Ministry to allow them to board a flight back, but there is no one to talk to, no phone number even,” she said.

Other family members haven’t been able to get into Israel to attend funerals despite trying to get permission from the Exceptions Committee.

Carla Ben Simhon said her 94-year-old grandmother who passed away was expected to be buried today in Jerusalem, but her family who had made the journey from France to Frankfurt were still in limbo.

"They have tickets for an Israir flight, but we have yet to receive a response from the Exception Committee since Friday morning,” Ben Simhon said.

Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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