About 20 Israelis stuck outside of Israel due to the pandemic closures frantically returned to Israel via a five-hour window in which the Taba crossing from Egypt was opened. Many more are still trapped overseas without any recourse to return home to the Holy Land.
“Just before Passover, we have Jews stuck in Egypt,” Wander noted.
Wander made this observation at Eilat’s The Taba crossing, normally open 24 hours, seven days a week, which has been closed due to the pandemic. In fact, even Ben Gurion International Airport has been closed since January 26 despite the country’s intensive vaccine program. This is due to fears that the country will be compromised by people bringing in mutations from abroad that are resistant to the vaccine. Though a few flights bringing in new immigrants and returning citizens were permitted, these were limited to 600 people a day and not all of the people who wanted to enter Israel were given a flight. In addition to the travel restrictions, entries were limited by the space available in hotels to quarantine, a condition that has since been eased.
“Many of the people who came through Taba today were actually returning from somewhere else, flying into Egypt in order to return to Israel,” Wander reported. Wander emphasized that the closures restricting citizens from returning to Israel are unprecedented in Israeli history.
At least one of the returning exiles was an Israeli Arab. Wander spoke to Murad who lives in Jerusalem. Murad was learning in Cairo when the border closed.
“This is also unprecedented in the world today,” Wander said. “Every other country is allowing their citizens to return, despite travel restrictions that prohibit non-citizens from entering. Some of the people I spoke with had left Israel for a short period of time but got stuck overseas.”
Doron Sabach from Dimona was traveling when the pandemic hit. He came specifically to enter Israel via the temporary window of opportunity. Sabach had tried for eight days to enter via Germany but was stymied when he was denied permission by the Israeli government. His elderly mother and brother were both ill, making his return even more urgent. But this urgency did not influence the government offices and he was not allowed on the plane. His only resort was to fly to Cairo where he stayed for five days before the border crossing to Eilat opened.
While in the Frankfurt airport, Sabach encountered another Israeli, a woman, who had been stuck in the terminal for four days. Upon arriving at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, the Israeli authorities had denied her permission to continue her journey.
Wander spoke to Alexander, a resident of Haifa who traveled to visit his native Russia. He was still unable to return directly from Russia so Alexander flew to Egyp, hoping to enter via the Eilat crossing., He waited three weeks before he received a phone message in the morning telling him that the border would be open at noon for five hours.
Another traveller told wander that while he was touring Egypt, he was involved in an automobile accident.
“The taxi he was traveling in flipped over,” Wander reported. “He was not allowed to return to Israel to receive treatment.”
These are anecdotal reports recorded by Wander however he was told many other stories, first and second-hand accounts of difficulties, sometimes insurmountable, encountered by Israelis attempting to return home despite travel restrictions that included multiple rounds of testing upon exiting and yet again upon entering a new country.
“I was told of many Israelis who were not so fortunate and who are going to be spending the Passover holiday in exile,” Wander said. “One of the returnees was stunned. He understood precautionary measures but they have risen to the level at which everyone is considered as if they are guilty, infectious even after they have tested negative. It is like communal punishment. These people were willing to do whatever was necessary to return, which included flying via oblique routes.”
Their trials did not end upon returning home. Health restrictions prohibited them from taking public transport or even traveling with relatives who met them at the border. One Jerusalem resident was required to take a taxi that cost about 1,200 NIS ($360).
Paula came to pick up her son and his girlfriend who had toured the Sinai. Paula from Sde Boker explained that they had planned on vacation for one week, flying to Egypt via Turkey. After the flights were shut down, they were stranded in Egypt for over two months. Her son worked via the internet so, fortunately, he was able to continue working while stranded in Egypt.
“They were not stressed,” Paula said. “But we were.”
Paula understood the auspicious timing and nature of the experience and came to greet the young couple with a large balloon with the words “Ytiziat Mizrayim, Hador haba” (the exodus from Egypt, next-generation).
Assaf Sasson, originally from Jerusalem, was visiting relatives in Italy when the airports were closed leaving him little choice. On his first attempt to return via the Eilat crossing, he was turned back. He was stuck in Egypt for four months.
Many Israeli travelers are stuck and the government has responded. By the third week in March, El Al, Israel’s national air carrier, responded to a government request to send rescue flights to Peru, India, Australia, Brazil, and Costa Rica to bring home hundreds of Israelis who were stranded around the world due to the worldwide pandemic. On 22 March, 550 Israelis returned from India; a few days before about 1,100 Israeli travelers were repatriated from Peru. But the scene at the Eilat border crossing on Thursday merely emphasized how much more must be done.