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In first, direct commercial flight from UAE lands in Tel Aviv

UN says Etihad Airways plane ferrying 16 tons of medical supplies to Palestinians; Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi have no formal relations, but reportedly maintain clandestine ties

In this photo released by the state-run WAM news agency on May 19, 2020, an Etihad Airways flight with aid for the Palestinians to fight the coronavirus pandemic is loaded with its cargo in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, before departing to Israel. (WAM via AP)
In this photo released by the state-run WAM news agency on May 19, 2020, an Etihad Airways flight with aid for the Palestinians to fight the coronavirus pandemic is loaded with its cargo in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, before departing to Israel. (WAM via AP)

United Arab Emirates-based Etihad Airways made history on Tuesday, flying a plane loaded with virus aid for Palestinians on a direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, marking the first known direct commercial flight between Israel and the UAE.

The Etihad cargo jet, painted in all white and missing any marking, landed at Ben-Gurion Airport just after 9 p.m. after seemingly flying a roundabout route through Iraq and either Jordan or Turkey.

The flight struck a rare moment of public cooperation between the UAE, home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, and Israel. The countries have no formal diplomatic ties to Israel, but have begun to increasingly cooperate openly after years of rumored back-channel discussions between them over the mutual enmity of Iran.

An Israeli official said the flight was 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.

“For the first time, an @etihad cargo plane just landed at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport! Hopefully soon, we will see passenger flights, too,” Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador the UN, wrote on Twitter.

He added: “Having visited, I know the UAE is a fascinating place, and look to continue improving relations between our countries.”

Etihad, a state-owned, long-haul carrier, earlier confirmed the 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.

The UAE’s state-run WAM news agency issued a statement saying it delivered 16 tons of protective gear, medical items and ventilators “to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in the occupied Palestinian territory.” It did not acknowledge the flight nor its significance.

An Etihad Airways plane ferrying medical aid for the Palestinians taxis after landing at Ben Gurion Airport on May 19, 2020. It was the first known commercial flight between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) said the shipment included 16 tons of medical supplies, including protective equipment and 10 ventilators.

“This is an international crisis that requires an international response. The UAE is grateful to UNSCO for facilitating the UAE’s support for the Palestinian people, and for the UN’s tireless efforts to coordinate and assist the global fight against the pandemic,” Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, the Emirati envoy to the UN, was quoted saying in a UNSCO statement.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Middle East peace envoy, hailed the UAE’s delivery of the aid.

“The UAE is an important partner, whose continued support for peace and for the Palestinian people at this critical time is highly valued. Global solidarity is in the interest of everyone,” he said.

Neither UN statement mentioned Israel’s role in the delivery.

Neither the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank have their own airports, meaning most cargo bound for Palestinian territory must enter through Israel. That likely required an airlift of the material from the UAE, which hosts humanitarian stockpiles for the United Nations.

The extent of Gulf Arab ties with Israel is still mostly kept private. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have allegedly used Israeli spyware to go after government critics.

Oman, which has ties with Iran, hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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.

The UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms founded in 1971, had no significant history with Jews. While 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. Israel also has a small mission representing its interests at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.

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.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meet with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, in Amman, Jordan, July, 9, 2009. (AP Photo/Nader Daoud)

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 PA 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.

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