Etihad Airways on Tuesday said it would fly aid for the Palestinians amid the coronavirus pandemic from the capital of the UAE into Israel, marking the first known direct commercial flight between the two nations.
The flight comes as the UAE, home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, has no formal diplomatic ties to Israel over its occupation of land wanted by the Palestinians for a future state.
However, it marks an open moment of cooperation between the countries after years of rumored back-channel discussions between them over the mutual enmity of Iran.
Etihad, a state-owned, long-haul carrier, confirmed it had a flight Tuesday to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.
Etihad Airways operated a dedicated humanitarian cargo flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv on 19 May to provide medical supplies to the Palestinians, the airline told The Associated Press. The flight had no passengers on board.
Emirati government officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In the past, private and diplomatic planes often had to travel to a third country before heading onto Israel.
The Israel Airports Authority confirmed the cargo flight would be landing at Ben Gurion on Tuesday evening.
An Israeli official said the flight would be delivering humanitarian aid provided by the UAE to the Palestinians through the World Food Program, and that the cargo flight was coordinated with the Israeli government. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, was only founded in 1971 and had no significant history with Jews. While still not acknowledging Israel diplomatically, Emirati officials have allowed Israeli officials to visit and the Israeli national anthem was played after an athlete won gold in an Abu Dhabi judo tournament.
Next year, Israel will take part in its delayed Expo 2020, the world’s fair being hosted by Dubai. A secret synagogue also draws practicing Jews in Dubai.
The UAE also has announced plans to build the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which will house a mosque, a church and a synagogue.
The extent of Gulf Arab ties with Israel is still mostly kept private, though. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have allegedly used Israeli spyware to go after government critics.
Oman, which has ties with Iran, hosted the Israeli prime minister in a surprise visit in 2018 that served to remind Washington of its unique ability to be a conduit for talks.
But such ties remain highly contentious among the Arab public, particularly as the Palestinians remain without a state of their own despite decades of talks.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority imposed sweeping lockdowns in mid-March aimed at containing the virus, limiting travel and public gatherings and forcing nonessential businesses to close. Many of the restrictions have been lifted in recent weeks as the rate of new infections has declined.
Israel has reported more than 16,600 cases and around 270 deaths, with more than 13,000 of the patients having recovered. The Palestinian Authority has reported around 390 cases and two fatalities, with around 340 people having recovered.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying conditions.
The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam, will reopen next week after the conclusion of a major holiday marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. It follows weeks of closure aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. It had been closed since March over the virus.
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