Israel’s travel ban causes panic and confusion

  • Paula
A friend contacted me this week to ask if reports that Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world because of the coronavirus were fake. They aren’t. Jerusalem has announced a 14-day home quarantine for all travellers arriving from abroad, and non-Israeli citizens have to show they have a place to self-quarantine before they’ll be allowed into the country. It doesn’t matter where you are travelling from – South Africa included – you need to go into isolation for two weeks. This means staying in your bedroom, or moving around your apartment with a mask on, but not going outside under any circumstances. You could get a seven-year prison sentence if you disobey this order.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 12, 2020

Thousands of flights have also been cancelled. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a difficult decision, “but it’s necessary to maintain public health, and public health is above all else”.

As of Tuesday, eight new cases were diagnosed in the country, bringing to 58 the total number of Israelis who have tested positive.

But life goes on as normal. There is no panicked shopping like there is in other countries, most notably Australia, where there has been mass hoarding of toilet paper to the point where it has created a genuine shortage for some companies. And, typical in times of anxiety, jokes are making the rounds on social media.

These include, “I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been avoiding people since way before the coronavirus,” and memes showing a new greeting – the Wuhan Shake – with people clasping feet rather than hands. According to another joke, “This morning at the post office, while I was in line, two people with masks entered. Total panic! Then, they said, ‘This is a robbery!’ and we all calmed down.”

Israel’s policy is more extreme than that of most developed nations, including those that have been harder hit by the disease. Restricting Israelis from travelling to major European countries and requiring people returning from these countries to self-quarantine has already caused enormous economic damage, particularly to tourism and airlines.

No surprise then that some claim Netanyahu’s decision has political undertones. It’s transpired that the large number of Israelis who recently returned from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington DC weren’t required to self-quarantine. This, in spite of the fact that three people who attended the conference – where American Vice-President Mike Pence and a long list of senators and congressmen were also present – had been diagnosed with the virus.

Eyebrows were further raised when the Israeli tourism minister admitted during an interview that politics and diplomacy played a role in such decision-making when it came to the United States, saying, “The relationship is especially sensitive, and when we make decisions regarding the US, it’s in co-ordination. We won’t take any unilateral steps.”

Some charge that Netanyahu didn’t want to restrict entry from the US – Israel’s closest ally and biggest aid donor – as it would be interpreted as a slap in the face, especially as American President Donald Trump has downplayed the virus. Netanyahu is struggling to build a coalition government, and faces an impending corruption trial. The last thing he needs are angry tweets from a volatile US president. So instead of singling out America, he imposed a blanket ban on travel from all countries.

But there are many Israelis who believe Netanyahu went too far. The restrictions include large community events or mass gatherings of more than 5 000 people; no international conferences in Israel; and the recommendation that that older adults over 60 and people with chronic background diseases avoid gatherings and contact with international travellers.

The local travel industry has been worst hit. Many offices have been forced to close, and it’s questionable whether the smaller ones will recover. Ronnie Shabai, the branch manager of Jerusalem Talmach travel company, says he’s lost 95% of business.

“After the message circulated that all Israelis who don’t have to travel shouldn’t do so, 50% of our trips cancelled within hours. I had to give money back to people who had already paid. I’m closing my office, and I will leave only two agents for both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv branches. We still have a small number of Israelis travelling inside the country, but that’s also decreasing, and many are cancelling the hotels they booked for Pesach.”

Shabai says it’s never been this bad, not after the 11 September attacks or even during the worst days of the intifada (Palestinian uprisings).

It’s created confusion and more than a little panic to say the least. I’ve spoken to several university students who have been unable to return to Israel as their holidays come to an end, and are stuck abroad wondering how they’ll catch up class. Exams are still underway in some schools, and there’s uncertainty if they will, in fact, take place. Will classes be held? No-one knows, and it’s difficult to determine what’s true and what’s fake from the information being circulated online. The country has also been celebrating Purim, and people who returned from international destinations have been told to stay at home, even if they weren’t in quarantine. Better safe than sorry, so the adage goes. I saw a few costumed revellers dressed up as the coronavirus, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has closed all mosques in the Bethlehem area to prevent the spread of the virus. The PA Ministry of Wakf and Religious Affairs said the decision was in accordance with the state of emergency in the Palestinian territories that was announced by PA President Mahmoud Abbas after 19 people tested positive.

Many locals who work in Israel have been barred from leaving Bethlehem. Residents are critical of the measures, pointing out that they are stricter than those imposed inside Israel, with some suggesting political motives for the decision.

As for elsewhere in the Middle East, there are, at the time of writing, about 7 640 confirmed cases across the region. Iran has the highest number of infections, and its government officials are warning that the number could spike to more than 450 000 patients, many of whom are at risk of dying. Memes and jokes aside, these are sobering numbers.

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