Qatar has agreed to allow special direct flights from Israel that will be open to both Israeli and Palestinian fans for the World Cup, FIFA announced on Thursday.
But the accord gave few details on how decades of hostility would be overcome so that Palestinians and Israelis can travel on the same charter jets to the first World Cup in an Arab nation.
“Today’s historic announcement provides a platform to improve relations across the Middle East,” said Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, world football’s governing body.
“With this deal, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to fly together and enjoy football together.”
A FIFA statement said the flights would be subject to “Israel’s security requirements and operational capabilities” and comments made by Israel and Qatar, which do not have diplomatic relations, made clear their divisions.
Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the deal without mentioning Palestinian access to the tournament that starts November 20.
A Qatari government official told AFP: “Qatar conveyed to the Israelis that any escalation in Jerusalem, Gaza, or the West Bank during this time will risk the cancelation of the agreement including the direct flights.”
Diplomatic sources said more than 10,000 Palestinian and Israeli fans have secured tickets for the 29-day tournament.
Under its World Cup hosting deal Qatar cannot refuse fans from any nation.
Diplomatic sources said it had taken months of “hard bargaining” for FIFA to broker the deal allowing direct flights from Israel’s main Ben Gurion Airport for the event.
Israel severely restricts access to Ben Gurion for residents of the Palestinian territories. West Bank Palestinians normally travel through Jordan and it is virtually impossible for Gazans to enter Ben Gurion.
The FIFA statement said flights would be operated “by an airline with existing landing rights in Qatar for the duration of the FIFA World Cup, subject to Israel’s security requirements and operational capabilities.”
All fans on the flights must have a match ticket and Qatar’s special fan pass, the Hayya card, it added, promising more details “in due course”.
The conditions outlined by FIFA would rule out an Israeli airline for the flights. Sources close to the talks said Royal Jordanian Airlines and European operator TUI were under consideration.
Consular services for Israelis will be handled by “a designated privately-operated international travel company based in Doha,” said FIFA.
“Palestinians will have access to consular services at the Palestinian embassy in Doha.”
Lapid welcomed the accord without mentioning Palestinian fans.
“After hard work over the course of many months, we have arranged for Israeli citizens to be able to fly to the World Cup in Qatar on direct flights, and the opening of an Israeli office in Qatar to provide services to fans,” he said.
Qatar’s Gulf neighbours the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020. Saudi Arabia — which does not recognise Israel — opened its airspace to Israeli plane in July.
Qatar established trade relations with Israel in 1996, the first Gulf state to do so. But in 2000, Israel’s trade office in Qatar was closed down by authorities and relations between the two countries were permanently severed in 2009 over an Israeli military operation in Gaza.
Doha supports Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip and has fought four wars with Israel since 2008. Israel, which maintains a blockade of Gaza, engages with Doha to grant permissions for the distribution of Qatari aid in the Palestinian coastal enclave, but details on such contacts are rarely publicly confirmed.
The killing this year of a Palestinian-American journalist for Qatari-based channel Al Jazeera strained ties.
Israel’s army conceded that one of its troops had likely shot Shireen Abu Akleh but said the soldier had mistaken her for a militant.
Qatar insisted that its stance on Israel is unaltered.
“This is part of Qatar’s commitment to FIFA’s hosting requirements and it should not be politicised,” the Qatari government official said of the accord.
“We have always said that anyone with a World Cup match ticket will be allowed to enter Qatar. Because of this agreement, Palestinians will now be able to enjoy the first World Cup in the Arab and Muslim world.
“Our stance on normalisation has not changed. Qatar’s position remains firmly linked to resolving the Palestinian issue, including a two state solution in accordance with the relevant Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative,” the official told AFP.
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