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Israel asks Saudi Arabia to allow direct flights for Muslim pilgrims on way to Mecca

Kingdom currently allows pilgrims from Israel but requires them to travel through a third country; direct flights from Tel Aviv would cut costs by half, says Minister Esawi Frej

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

A general view of the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque is seen during the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
A general view of the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque is seen during the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Israel has asked Saudi Arabia to allow direct flights from Tel Aviv to the Muslim kingdom ahead of this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca, expected to be the most prominent Islamic pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic upended the annual event — a key pillar of Islam.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej said Thursday he had filed an official request to Saudi authorities in regards to the issue.

“I’d like to see the day when I can depart from the Ben-Gurion Airport to fulfill my [religious] obligation as a Muslim in Mecca,” said Frej, an Arab Israeli lawmaker from the left-wing Meretz party.

“I’ve raised the issue with Saudi Arabia and I hope that day arrives soon,” he said during an interview with Army Radio.

Currently, Saudi Arabia accepts Muslim pilgrims arriving from Israel to Mecca but requires them to travel through a third country, which Frej said could cost up to $11,500 for a week-long trip.

Meanwhile, pilgrims from neighboring Arab countries pay about half that amount.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej attends a Meretz faction meeting at the Knesset on February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One million pilgrims from across the globe gathered on Thursday in Mecca — believed to be the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad — to perform the initial rites of the hajj.

The hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes the faithful along a path traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022. (Amr Nabil/AP)

After Israeli normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, Saudi Arabia allowed Israeli flights making their way to those Gulf states to travel over its territory in a special air corridor.

Israel is hoping to expand this approval so it applies to other destinations as well.

Besides Frej’s request, Hebrew-language media said Thursday that unnamed Israeli officials have also asked the kingdom to approve flights of Israeli airlines over its territory, which would significantly shorten the time and cost of flights from Israel to Asia.

This comes ahead of US President Joe Biden’s scheduled trip to the region next week.

Biden is expected to land in Israel on July 13 for a two day-visit, before departing to Saudi Arabia. He has recently said that one of his trip’s purposes will be to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region,” raising speculation about the possible normalization of relations with the Gulf state.

Last month, reports indicated Israel’s intention to ask Biden to approve the delivery of an Israeli laser-powered air defense system to Arab countries aligned against Iran, including Saudi Arabia.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has spoken of a possible “breakthrough” during Biden’s upcoming visit.

But analysts have said that diplomatic ties with Israel will not be made possible as long as King Salman, 86, still reigns.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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