Israel may be one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Its government may have decreed that its citizens no longer must wear masks outside. The nation’s education system may be relieved of all COVID restrictions. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. wants its citizens to visit the country.
In fact, on April 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta issued its highest level of travel warning to Israel, “including the West Bank and Gaza.” According to the CDC, “travelers should avoid all travel to these destinations … Even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.”
The CDC warning comes as Israel is resuscitating its tourism industry. In January, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism reported a drop of more than 80 percent in tourism in 2020 compared to the previous year. The same ministry announced this month that starting May 23, Israel will be open to fully vaccinated tour groups. Vaccinated individual tourists may be welcome as soon as July, the Tourism Ministry added.
Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority also recently announced that foreigners who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, and who have first-degree relatives in Israel, can come visit them.
There’s no question that Israel’s battle with the COVID-19 pandemic has turned around since the country started its vaccination program in December. Admittedly, the virus has killed more than 6,300 Israelis. But a recent study by the Weizmann Institute of Science, based on information from the Israel Ministry of Health and published by computational biologist Eran Segal, shows that since the pandemic’s peak in mid-January, the daily number of patients diagnosed with the virus has dropped a staggering 98 percent. The number of serious COVID-19 patients has declined 93 percent; 87 percent fewer Israelis are dying of the virus; and a whopping 85 percent of Israelis 16 years or older have been vaccinated.
So, why the travel warning, especially now? The CDC includes in its alert the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel captured in the 1967 war. Palestinians living in those areas are partly under the governance of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, and their vaccination programs have significantly lagged that of Israel’s.
But residents in those territories – particularly in the West Bank — are not totally separate from Israelis, and the entangling of the two populations has only increased in the last four years, according to a recent Associated Press investigation. This report states that Israel has built nearly 10,000 more homes in the West Bank since 2017, or roughly 28 percent more than during the previous eight years. Even more significantly, the new construction occurred deeper into the West Bank.
According to official figures, nearly 500,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 100 settlements or outposts in the West Bank, comprising about 15 percent of the total West Bank population. Another 200,000 Jewish Israelis live in East Jerusalem, home to more than 300,000 Palestinians.
While that may explain CDC’s travel warning, both Israel and the U.S. agree on many aspects of travel between the two countries. Israel requires tourists to take a coronavirus test before boarding the plane to Israel, and upon arrival, another COVID test plus a serological test, which proves the existence of antibodies. On the return flight to the U.S., passengers – including citizens and those vaccinated — are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than three days before travel or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the previous three months before they board the flight to the United States.
Despite the length of the trip between the two countries, passengers are required to wear masks, and are encouraged to socially distance – as much as possible – and wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizer.
Until the loosened restrictions for travel into Israel go into effect, not only are tourists required to test negative 72 hours before their flight and have proof of vaccination, they also must quarantine upon arrival for at least 10 days, according to the U.S. Embassy in Israel. Quarantining has mostly been inside hotels, but Israel is experimenting with an electronic tracking bracelet, which would allow for quarantining in a home.
Meanwhile, both Israel and the U.S. – as well as other countries – hope to eventually agree on a vaccine passport, allowing elimination of the antibody test requirement.
For Israelis, the opening of its tourism industry works both ways. In May, Royal Caribbean plans to launch a series of vaccinated cruises to the Greek islands and Cyprus from Haifa for vaccinated Israelis, according to Travel + Leisure magazine.
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Israel Travel
- West Bank
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- Israel Ministry of Tourism
- Israel Population and Immigration Authority
- Israel Ministry of Health
- Weizmann Institute
- Associated Press
- East Jerusalem
- Travel + Leisure magazine
- Royal Caribbean
- United States
- Covid Passport