An Air Seychelles jet with at least 128 Israelis on board became the first direct passenger flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel on Tuesday when it brought home passengers who spent the night in Jeddah after their flight was forced to land due to electrical problems.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the kingdom for the warm welcome given to the Israelis. Passengers also said that their initial fears upon discovering they were in a country with no diplomatic ties to Israel were quickly allayed by the “uber-nice” Saudi welcome.
“I really appreciate the warm way in which the Saudi authorities treated the Israeli passengers,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I really appreciate the good neighborliness.”
Maayan Shtal, who was on the plane forced to land in Jeddah, said there was a power cut and smoke in the plane, requiring the emergency landing.
She told Israel’s Channel 12 news that it wasn’t clear to the passengers where they were going to be touching down, and that the flight crew initially didn’t seem certain either.
Then “we heard people saying Jeddah, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And everyone was, like, ‘What? But we’re Israelis?… How can Israelis land in Saudi Arabia?'” There was concern that perhaps the airline didn’t realize the potential sensitivity, “but we realized that, in the end, they did understand,” she said.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal ties, making the presence of the Israelis there a potential diplomatic issue. The countries have inched closer in recent years and are reportedly nearing a possible US-brokered diplomatic breakthrough, with the flight representing a rare instance of public cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
Channel 12 reported that Israeli security officials, who had been on vacation, happened to be aboard, adding to the tension. The Kan public broadcaster also reported that the brother of far-right Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Almog Cohen was on the flight.
Air Seychelles flight HM022 had been scheduled to ferry 128 Israeli passengers and an unknown number of other foreign nationals from the Indian Ocean islands to Tel Aviv on Monday night. But it instead diverted to Jeddah due to a technical issue, the airline said in a statement.
According to Hebrew media outlets, the problem was an electrical issue and pilots did not formally declare an emergency landing. Passengers described lights going out and a smell of burning.
The airline later dispatched another aircraft to Jeddah to pick up the passengers. It landed at Ben Gurion at 2 p.m. Tuesday after an approximately two-hour flight, in what appeared to be the first-ever direct passenger flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
I greatly appreciate the warm attitude of the Saudi authorities to the Israeli passengers whose flight was in distress and was compelled to make an emergency landing in Jeddah.
I am pleased that they are all coming home.
I greatly appreciate the good neighborliness. pic.twitter.com/ACeG0IqvH6
— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) August 29, 2023
Passengers said they were quite nervous landing in a country that has traditionally been hostile to Israel, but were very pleased with the warm welcome they received. They were housed in an airport hotel overnight.
“The reception we got from the Saudis was very surprising,” Emmanuelle Arbel, one of the passengers, told Radio 103FM from the airport hotel early Tuesday. “They said to us ‘You are most welcome’ and were smiling. In truth, we were not expecting this.”
Arbel said when they first landed in Jeddah “we were a bit stressed, we did not know what was happening.”
Some people started crying, she said.
Another passenger, Chen Giladi, told the Ynet news site that the overhead lights suddenly went out on one side of the aircraft during the flight, accompanied by an acrid smell before the plane made its unscheduled landing.
Giladi said that during the descent, the passengers were told they would be landing in Saudi Arabia. They were then kept on board for several hours.
“That’s when three hours of stress started. We were really afraid to get off the plane,” she said.
However, once they disembarked, the treatment from the Saudis was exceptional, passengers said.
Israeli passengers say they are treated courteously in Jeddah International Airport pic.twitter.com/qHtW4Dkdq4
— Haisam Hassanein (@HaisamHassanei1) August 29, 2023
“They took us in buses to a lovely hotel at the terminal, they treated us very well. From the moment we disembarked they greeted us with ‘shalom’ in Hebrew and made us feel good. They are very nice here,” she said.
Other passengers agreed.
“They were uber-nice, we were pleasantly surprised,” Racheli Miller told Ynet, adding that they had been housed in a luxury hotel. “But yes, we want to come home, there is no place like home.”
Other passengers described how the locals at the airport helped the Israelis connect to Wi-Fi so that they could contact worried relatives at home.
“They were super generous,” one person said, sharing a video of the Israelis waiting at the departure gate.
Passengers were jubilant after landing home at Ben Gurion airport.
“We are emotional, we were a bit anxious, but we trusted the country would do what was needed,” Sivan Postanlnik told reporters. “And they did not disappoint.”
“We made history, maybe we will also bring peace,” said another passenger Shai Kalmonowitz.
Jeddah Airport is an alternate landing site for routes to Israel that pass over Saudi airspace and is approved in advance for such flights in case of a need for unscheduled or emergency landings.
Since last year, the kingdom has allowed flights to Israel to cross over its airspace.
Saudi Arabia only began allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain after the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020.
Air Seychelles General Manager Sandy Benoiton told Channel 12 in an interview that the cooperation from the Saudis had been “great.”
The Saudis were “very welcoming of the Israeli passengers and Air Seychelles,” he said, adding that he was “very pleased with how all parties handled the situation.”
“It was a smooth process with all parties,” he said.