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Green light for Israel travel as SA goes from red to orange



A week ago, South African olim and their families told the SA Jewish Report about their despair in dealing with Israel’s extreme COVID-19 travel restrictions. But a lot can change in a week, and late on Sunday, 8 August, Israel suddenly dropped South Africa from its “red list” of countries.

Updated travel guidelines published by the health ministry now put South Africa on the “orange” list of countries from 16 August.

“The drop in the status for South Africa from red to orange is dramatic,” says former MK (Minister of the Knesset) Dov Lipman. “Until this point, for a really long time, officially the rule was that travel from South Africa to Israel was banned, and travel from Israel to South Africa was banned.

“Now, with the change to orange, any Israeli who wants to get on a plane and go to South Africa can do so. No approvals necessary, no process, just go. When they come back to Israel, they’ll have to quarantine for seven days. But this has freed people to visit their families, and there’s tremendous happiness about that,” says Lipman.

If there’s one person who has been there for olim and their families during these long months of travel restrictions, it’s him. His organisation, Yad L’Olim, is “an address that English-speaking olim can turn to, to help them with anything they need once they make aliyah.” Lipman realised this was needed during his time in the Knesset. But the trickle of queries he used to receive turned into a flood when travel restrictions came into effect.

Looking back on the travel-related difficulties facing olim and their families over the past 18 months, Lipman says, “The hardest part for me has been hearing the pain and anguish amongst olim about separation from their families and the inability to have happy times with each other, especially when you start talking about red countries like South Africa. It’s been emotionally hard. I can hear the collective sigh and happiness that the status has been changed.”

Being on the orange list still has its complications. It means that travellers to Israel from South Africa must apply for an entry permit at least 30 days before their trip. They need to quarantine for 14 days on arrival (with the ability to reduce it to seven days by having a negative test on day one and day seven).

“To come from South Africa to Israel, one has to go through an approval process,” says Lipman. “Officially, you’re allowed to do so only if you’re coming to visit a first-degree relative. It’s critical that people follow the documentation required exactly. They won’t even answer people if you don’t have the right documentation. That’s a big part of what Yad L’Olim is doing today – reviewing people’s documents to help make sure that they’re ready. One of the pitfalls we’ve seen is people who apply just a few days before a flight. It’s very difficult to get them on in that situation. We try only in extreme situations.”

He says travel to Israel from South Africa is “for people who are vaccinated or have recovered from corona[virus], with medical documentation of that. No other people are allowed to come, except for children under the age of one, who can travel with their parents if their parents get approval.”

Even with these regulations in place, being downgraded to orange is still good news for many olim and their families. When oleh Josh Sher described the frustration that he and others were feeling to the SA Jewish Report last week, he never imagined that things could shift so soon.

“I hope in some small way the frustration of a lot of people – which I just articulated into words – helped to drive change,” he says. “I am, of course, beaming with excitement and today I have an extra bounce in my step knowing that I’ll be seeing my parents soon.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report last week, local virology expert Professor Barry Schoub said the travel restrictions on South Africa were “unnecessary” and “the prolonging of the restrictive blacklist of travel to and from South Africa by Israeli authorities is difficult to understand from a public-health point of view”.

This was because “the highly contagious Delta variant has changed the picture significantly. The Beta variant has almost disappeared from South Africa, and has now been replaced by Delta, similarly dominant in Israel.

“There’s no evidence that the circulation of the virus is more extensive in South Africa,” Schoub said. “It therefore makes little epidemiological sense to fear importation of this variant virus into Israel and to continue this unnecessary blacklisting of travel from South Africa.”

He chose not to comment further after the regulations were changed, except to say that he had met Israeli authorities in the past week.

Looking back on the travel-related difficulties facing olim and their families over the past 18 months, Lipman says, “The first challenge has been just having the information to know what the rules are. I’ve used my Facebook platform to get the word out about exactly what the rules are. The next challenge has been the number of requests that Israel has received, trying to keep up with them, and making sure that people who deserve approval get it.”

He has worked with his many connections to try and ensure that cases like weddings receive approval.

“There have also been last-minute issues that have come up with funerals,” he says. “Certainly, when the Meron tragedy happened, that was a critical time in making sure that families were able to get here quickly. Keeping up with the amount of requests that we [Yad L’Olim] get has been a challenge, and that’s why we’re expanding our staff.” The organisation is “funded by private donors, and by the day, it feels like we need to expand. We are certainly seeking people to help us succeed.”

They have witnessed people stuck in airports, and they have had to reach out to members of parliament in other countries to get involved in certain cases. “A lot of people have suffered tremendously throughout the year, and we’ve tried to do our part to alleviate that suffering and make things easier for people,” says Lipman.

As for why this change has happened now, “the [Israeli] health ministry is monitoring other countries on a daily basis”, he says. “It has decided that since people are going to be coming, they’ll be doing a full quarantine, and they’re vaccinated, so they’ve loosened things up. And I guess there must be something about what’s happening on the ground in South Africa which took it out of the category of red countries. I don’t have those facts and figures, but they’re monitoring them on a regular basis.”

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