Following a cabinet decision the night before, Israel on Sunday eased restrictions on air travel to the country, enabling thousands of citizens to return home and doing away with the need to stay in state-run quarantine hotels.
Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return. Ben Gurion Airport has been shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad.
Entrance into the country required special permission by the government, which was granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of each flight by a government-run exceptions committee.
Under the new rules, 1,000 Israelis will be permitted to enter the country every day, with the figure ramping up to 3,000 by the middle of the week.
A previous requirement for all returnees to quarantine in designated state-run hotels was also lifted and travelers will instead commit to self-isolate at home. There will be increased police enforcement to make sure that those who return keep to the rules. The punishment for violating the rules is a fine of NIS 5,000 ($1,500).
People will be able to enter the country on flights from specific locations, with Kyiv, Toronto, and Hong Kong added to the existing list of New York, Frankfurt, London, and Paris.
Airlines will be required to provide the Health Ministry with a list of passengers or face a NIS 5,000 fine ($1,500).
Special exceptions from the daily quota will be granted to new immigrants who can’t delay their arrival to the country, essential foreign workers, and professional athletes.
In addition to air travel, Israel’s land borders will be opened.
A border crossing with Jordan will open up to twice a week, and the border with Egypt will be opened once to allow any Israelis there to return.
Those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will be able to leave at will to Jordan, although the Taba crossing into Egypt will remain shut.
National coronavirus czar Nachman Ash expressed concern over the changes on Sunday morning, and in particular the risk that mutated strains of the virus, which had prompted the closure of the airport, could now find their way into the country.
Ash told Army Radio “there is need for self-control. We don’t have enough enforcement and there is more than a little danger that mutations will enter the country.”
Ash has recently warned that Israel could be forced into a fourth lockdown if measures to ease the current restrictions lead to a rise in infections.
In ending the requirement for compulsory stay at quarantine hotels, the government also released to their homes hundreds of people who were already staying in the facilities.
Those who left signed a form declaring they will continue their quarantine at home.
Last week the government decided that police would use electronic bracelets to keep track of those who return from abroad, with travelers staying at home instead of using the hotel quarantine system. Ministers were set to advance legislation on the matter Sunday.
Channel 13 reported last month that around 40,000 Israelis were considering returning — 25,000 of them to vote in the March 23 elections and a further 15,000 who have submitted requests to the exceptions committee, many of whom are stranded abroad.
The committee has faced accusations of political meddling in its work. It was put under intense public scrutiny in recent days after a Channel 12 report last week suggested that the vast majority of passengers being allowed into the country have been ultra-Orthodox, while many non-Haredi requests were being rejected (though politicians and some in the media called the report into question).
Though Israelis can now enter the country, there remain limited options for travel abroad without quarantining at the destination.
Currently, only Georgia recognizes Israel’s so-called green pass, identifying those who have either been vaccinated against the coronavirus or have recovered from COVID-19.
The US also doesn’t recognize Israel’s green pass and Israelis who travel there must provide a negative virus test and spend time in quarantine.
Agreements over the past month with Greece and Cyprus that would allow green pass holders to travel between the countries without quarantine or taking virus tests have so far not been formally signed.
Diplomatic sources told Ynet that the European Union, of which both Greece and Cyprus are members, strongly objects to any of its members individually signing agreements on green passes.
Germany in particular is against the idea, according to the report, because it sees the green pass system as a form of discrimination against those who don’t want to be vaccinated, as well as out of a desire to help boost internal tourism within the European bloc.
Greece is also reluctant to move ahead with the agreement following a recent wave of infections in the country, generating fear that tourists, even those who are vaccinated, could bring new strains to its shores, the report said.
A Foreign Ministry source told the website that Israel has not pursued the travel agreements for the time being due to infection rates at home and because air travel to and from the country was largely closed anyway since the end of January.
Aside from international travel, Saturday night’s cabinet decision reopened much of the economy, including restaurants, cafes, school grades 7-10 in low- to medium-infection areas, event venues, tourist attractions and hotel dining.
Israel in February began easing restrictions following a third lockdown, and has since gradually reopened stores and shopping malls (for everyone); as well as gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities for those with green passes.