The High Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that Israel's restrictions on entering and exiting the country via Ben-Gurion Airport are unconstitutional and must end on Saturday, when the current period expires.
Current limitations include a cap of 3,000 returning citizens per day and the need for people who have not been vaccinated or have not recovered from COVID-19 to obtain a special permit to fly.
The court's ruling means that Israel's skies will be completely open starting Sunday, unless new measures are put in place by the government.
Senior health officials involved in managing the pandemic said the move risked causing an increased spread of the coronavirus in Israel at a time when the infection rate and number of serious cases were falling.
In the ruling based on the petition filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, Chief Justice Esther Hayut stated that the limitations violated the basic constitutional right to enter and exit Israel, and other rights at the core of the democratic fabric of life.
The court also said that the prolonged implementation of the measures, without allowing citizens abroad to properly prepare and without an estimated end date also violated civil rights and was endangering the right of Israelis to vote in the March 23 elections.
The judges wrote that the restrictions were set without the government obtaining any data about the number of citizens abroad who would want to return and without an explanation for the daily cap.
The restrictions also created the impression that instead of investing efforts and resources in enforcing quarantine for returnees, the government preferred to impose a regime of entry quotas.
Judges Hayut, Neal Hendel and Yitzhak Amit said that their decision was reinforced by the fact that Israel is the only democratic country in the world that has stopped citizens entering the country in such sweeping measures.
The judges said that since the threat of the coronavirus was not expected to dissipate in the foreseeable future, there had to be a better balance between minimizing the threat of new strains entering the country and violating basic rights.
Such a balance must enable people to carry on with their daily routines, while taking into account the various risks.
The government has yet to announce any new measures on the matter, with officials from the health and transportation ministries meeting with legal experts to decide on the next step.
The ruling was criticized by Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, who said the judges would be held responsible for the entry of new virus variants into Israel.
Coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash also slammed the ruling, which he said was "worrying" and would lead to "high morbidity and dangerous mutations entering Israel."
"We have taken so many steps to prevent this, and it is a shame now that we are seeing such favorable morbidity data. The High Court's decision could take Israel into a new wave of infection," Ash said.
But other health experts said that there were better ways to ensure that the virus did not spread further than closing the airport.
"The solution when it comes to the pathogen's variants is more testing and enforcement, not the hermetic shutdown of the airport," said Dr. Lion Poles, a member of the Health Ministry's pandemic taskforce.
"I say this based on how other countries reacted. Even countries that had to battle high morbidity did not close their gates."
Meanwhile, a number of airlines appeared to be planning to increase their flights to and from Israel following the ruling.
United Airlines said it was moving to reinstate its 13 flights a week from Newark and San Francisco to Tel Aviv, while Israel's airlines Israir, Arkia and El Al were also expected to announce the return of multiple routes.