Israelis, Palestinians can fly on same flights to World Cup

JERUSALEM (AP) — Soccer fans from Israel and the Palestinian territories will be able to travel directly to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar from Tel Aviv for the first time, soccer’s world governing body announced Thursday. The development is a groundbreaking deal for Israel and Qatar – two countries with no diplomatic relations.

Charter flights to Doha from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport for the tournament beginning Nov. 20 will be open to all Palestinians, FIFA said. This includes residents and accredited media workers in the occupied West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade for 15 years.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza do not have their own airport and must apply for a hard-to-obtain airport permit to use Ben-Gurion. These permits are not approved, if any, until shortly before take-off.

Israel can still refuse to grant exit permits to stranded Gaza residents seeking to leave Tel Aviv to attend the World Cup. Such permission is granted only in exceptional circumstances.

Israeli officials had no immediate details on how many flights would take place or how many Palestinians would be allowed to travel. When asked to comment on the arrangement, Ahmad Deek, the director general of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said it was the first time he had heard of it.

Israeli citizens cannot normally travel directly to Doha or enter Qatar with their Israeli passport. Relations have deteriorated since Doha closed an Israeli trade office in 2008 because of the Gaza war. Even without diplomatic ties, Qatar helps mediate between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas leaders during cycles of conflict.

The revolutionary travel arrangement could still fall apart.

The Qatari government said Doha had told Israel that “any escalation in Jerusalem, Gaza or the West Bank during this period would risk the cancellation of the agreement – including direct flights”.

Violence in the West Bank has increased in recent months as Israel has stepped up nightly arrests, making 2022 the deadliest in the occupied territory since 2006.

FIFA also announced on Thursday that a temporary consular service would help Israelis in Doha during the tournament. Some 3,800 Israelis and 8,000 Palestinians applied for the Hayya card, which acts as an entry visa to Qatar for the soccer tournament.

“Consular services for Israeli citizens will be provided in coordination with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs through a designated private international travel agency based in Doha,” FIFA said.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed the deal as the result of “hard work over several months”.

A Qatari government statement said arranging the trip for Israeli citizens was “part of Qatar’s commitment to FIFA’s hosting requirements and should not be politicized”.

Israel has already made inroads into the region in part because of international events. The Expo 2020 Dubai World Expo saw the participation of Israel. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel two years ago.

To avoid criticism, Qatar stressed that “its position on normalization has not changed” and that the country continues to support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel as a solution to the decades-old conflict. . There have been no serious peace talks for over a decade.

“Lately, we have not seen any positive development in the peace process that would merit a change in our policy,” the Qatari government added.

Qatar agreed to welcome all fans in the country when it began campaigning to host the World Cup and when it signed contracts with FIFA after winning the vote in December 2010. A similar obligation has was made to respect FIFA’s business partners by relaxing Qatar’s strict limits on the consumption and purchase of alcohol so that it can be served at official World Cup venues.

The tournament – ​​the first World Cup held in the Middle East and in an Arab country – takes place from November 20 to December 18.

However, Israeli and Palestinian fans will not support their national teams. The Israeli national team, which has not played in Asian World Cup qualifiers since the 1970s for security reasons, has not qualified for the Qatar tournament from its European group. The Palestinian team was eliminated in a preliminary qualifying group won by Saudi Arabia.

Only fans with match tickets are allowed to enter Qatar until December 2 to ease demand for limited accommodation in the tiny emirate while all 32 teams are still playing. Ticketless fans can arrive later, in time for the first 16-team knockout round.

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Dunbar reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

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