"Closing borders is easier than opening them"

Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef  / Photo: Shlomi Amsalem

Israel Population and Immigration Authority director general Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef is circumspect about when the country's skies are likely to reopen.

Israel Population and Immigration Authority director general Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef is circumspect when asked about the reopening of Israel's borders to non-Israeli passport holders. "It's easier to close borders than to open them," he says.

The Israel Population and Immigration Authority is responsible for Israel's border crossings and entries and must implement the decisions taken by the government regarding opening and closing borders and preventing the entry of foreigners.

Mor-Yosef explains, "The most significant step in coping with the spread of the coronavirus was blocking the borders. It began on January 31 when we stopped entry of anybody who had been in China and from there we moved country by country as the disease spread from South East Asia, to Italy and then to France and then to one of the most problematic places for us to close, which was the US. We closed it a little bit too late, when we closed entry to foreigners from throughout the world in March."

The borders are closed and there's no tourists

Since March 1, 242,000 Israelis have entered the country and 135,000 have left together with 201,000 foreigners. Foreign languages might still be heard in Tel Aviv but Mor-Yosef insists that no tourists are being let in. "There are no tourists. The borders are closed except for a few rare exceptions."

He explains that these can include a foreign partner married to an Israeli where the couple live in Israel, or people whose immediate family live in Israel, or sports stars from the top leagues.

"Decisions are taken according to data from the Ministry of Health together with the Israel National Security Council at the Prime Minister's Office, which decides when to involve the prime minister. He was involved in deciding to close the borders with Germany and Italy, for example. The considerations are not only technical, there are also diplomatic elements. Israel has prevented the entry of all foreigners even though Israelis can enter other countries. Today, for example Americans cannot come into Israel but Israelis can go into the US."

Among the exceptions who were allowed to enter Israel were meant to include yeshiva students. Two weeks ago, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri sent a letter to yeshiva heads telling them the good news that students who did not hold Israeli citizenship could enter Israel with special approval and subject to going into isolation. Last week, Deri announced that the special exemption was cancelled due to the rise in morbidity and that he would only allow married students into Israel. The approvals were valid for 300-400 students when normally the number of students would be more than 10,000, mainly from the US.

Mor-Yosef explains this u-turn. "After the new outbreak it was decided to reduce the number of foreigners entering Israel. The decision to allow in those who are married is because they live in their own apartments and can take care of being in isolation and their numbers are much smaller than the single students."

But students have still been coming to Israel over the last few days.

"That's right. Some of them came innocently and some tried to trick us (yeshiva students dressed in secular clothes before boarding the flight M.R.C.). Some have been asked to leave and there are five who have hired a lawyer and are currently in a state-run isolation center. But most didn't get on a plane at all."

To what extent do people coming into Israel adhere to isolation?

There are no exemptions from isolation for anybody, even somebody who comes in with an exceptional approval must go into isolation. As immigration activities are on hold we have 'lent' our inspectors to Israel Police to check that they coming into Israel are going into isolation. More than 95% are fulfilling the instructions and in the place that they say they will be."

The aviation and tourism sector is looking for a way forward. Will the skies reopen in some sort of form on July 1st?

"We are a bubble in part of a system that includes other countries. Any decision requires mutuality. If say an Israeli can travel to Greece and is exempt from isolation then that has to be in both directions when he comes back to Israel and also for a Greek citizen. This system is checking out what is happening in different countries and defining 'green countries' according to the data and the quality of the data or in other words the credibility of reporting."

"This is managed by the National Security Council and we participate beyond the technical aspects of implementing decisions. If for example they want every traveler to have travel insurance, the question is when it will be presented after landing or before takeoff in the country of origin - which is what we prefer."

"The issue of agreements with green countries is currently being discussed. On the one hand there are tens of thousands of employees whose livelihood is in the tourism sector and on the other hand there is the issue of health. I'm one of those who believes that coronavirus is a disease and has not been made up and that's also the way the Ministry of Health is behaving. There is major hesitancy about bringing in people that bring with them a risk of coronavirus when it is clear that cornoavirus came here from abroad," observes Mor-Yosef who is himself a doctor - an oncologist and gynecologist.

How is it possible that throughout the crisis, direct flights from the US continued when that country had one of the highest infection rates in the world?

"It is the airlines that decide whether to fly. There were only two airlines that continued operating scheduled flights throughout this period, United with a daily flight from New York and Ethiopian Airlines with flights to Addis Ababa. Israel did not prohibit these flights but did set the rules. The consideration on whether to fly or not was that companies had to be strict that who boarded the flight met our rules."

At the end of last week, Israelis who flew to Bucharest with Wizz Air were refused entry to Romania because they did not have an EU passport. Wizz Air was forced to fly them back to Israel. It sounds like all this could have been avoided if the right questions had been asked before they boarded at Ben Gurion airport. Who is responsible for all this?

"First and foremost the responsibility is with the passenger, especially during a time like this, to check if he can enter the country that he is flying to. However, it would also be appropriate for the airlines to make sure this is in accordance with the instructions of each country. Exactly as ground staff check for a US visa before a flight, this is an instruction that the airline itself wants to avoid a situation ahead of time in which they have to repatriate the passenger to their country of origin. There were a few cases like this in Israel as well, where foreign citizens came here and were refused entry. We have excellent relations with the airlines who for the most part know what to ask in advance through their ground staff."

Are you ready to get Ben Gurion airport back operating?

"Our employees are currently at home and are being paid by the government through an arrangement that is not through the National Insurance Institute. We have not lay off employees at this stage. Even the most optimistic person does not think that we will get back to the traffic of 24 million passengers that we had in 2019. Not even half of that."

Much of being able to get back to operations depends on declarations by passengers, for example, of which countries they have previously visited. If a person visits a red country and then flies into Israel from a green country, how do we know this?

"To a great extent when we open the skies we will have to rely on declarations by people. If someone comes on a flight from an EU country, I have no way of knowing where he has previously visited except for his declaration, if he doesn't have stamps in his passport. Europe is like one big country. This has arisen in the discussions we are currently holding and the challenge facing the National Security Council is to find a way."

Will coronavirus testing solve the problem, so that somebody who presents test results will be exempt from isolation?

"There is talk about this but it is not on the agenda. There are many economic and health factors and there is tourism. The situation is not only about health. The decision to close was easier to implement than opening the borders."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 8, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef  / Photo: Shlomi Amsalem
Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef / Photo: Shlomi Amsalem
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