November 29, 2023

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World Cup makes history with direct flights from Israel to Qatar

Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.

Tel Aviv

The 180 football fans lined up to check in for their flights to the World Cup aren’t just lucky for having scored tickets – they’re making history.

For the first time direct flights from Tel Aviv, Israel to Doha, Qatar will ferry fans to one of the sporting world’s biggest events – and between two countries that have no diplomatic relations.

On Sunday, a festive atmosphere surrounded the passengers, with Israeli officials in attendance, FIFA footballs bouncing between legs, and even a balloon archway and cake at the gate.

“It’s historic. We didn’t expect this and I don’t know if there [will be] another time to do this,” said passenger Eli Levin after checking in.

Although Israelis typically can’t visit Qatar, as part of the deal with FIFA for hosting the tournament, the Gulf state had to let them in. But the direct flights were not initially part of the plan.

Then in early November, FIFA announced that as part of a deal with FIFA, direct flights from Israel to Qatar would be allowed – as long as Palestinians could fly on them as well.

Normally, Palestinians from the occupied territories can’t fly from Ben Gurion airport without hard-to-obtain special permission from Israeli authorities. Instead, they catch international flights via Amman, Jordan, a journey that can take hours with border checkpoints. But with a World Cup ticket, Palestinians will have an easier time obtaining permission to travel from Tel Aviv, after passing security checks.

“With this deal, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to fly together and enjoy football together,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in a statement lauding the deal. “The World Cup is the ultimate symbol of football’s unifying power, and today’s historic announcement provides a platform to improve relations across the Middle East.”

Cyprus-based TUS Airways – which is operating the six round-trips (12 flights) – initially planned to have a brief “diplomatic” layover in Cyprus for the special flights before continuing onto Doha. Now it’ll be a shorter, two hour and 45 minute journey. Demand is so high, TUS Airways Senior Commercial Director Micha Owsinski said, that they’re working on adding three more round-trip flights.

“We hope really that it will be a great celebration for soccer. And that these fans here, both Arabs and Jews, Israeli and Palestinians enjoy and really show the good side of sports,” Owsinski told CNN.

Most of the passengers on the first flight were Israeli passport holders – not Palestinians from the occupied territories. That’s something Amir Assi, who is coordinating Palestinian trips to the World Cup, told CNN was mostly a result of the last-minute announcement of the travel deal.

Most Palestinian fans had booked their travel already through Jordan, he said, but are now hoping to make the trip easier and faster by making the first leg of their trip a flight from Tel Aviv to Amman, instead of traveling by land. Some, though, are still expected to take advantage of the special direct flights.

Assi said he hopes it paves the way for smoother travel for all Palestinians.

“If there had been permission months ago, there would every day be a Palestinian flight. But because we want this pilot [project] to win – even if there are fewer Palestinian passengers, this is still good for the future, a message also … that there should be more cooperation with Palestinians for future flights and events.”

Two Palestinian officials who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity dismissed the arrangement between Israel and Qatar as any sort of achievement. The officials said the arrangement for Palestinian fans to fly through Ben Gurion came too late and that it won’t make a difference for most Palestinians, since a World Cup trip can cost thousands of dollars.

Ahmed Abu Riash, from Ramleh, a mixed Arab-Jewish city in central Israel, told CNN at check-in he was excited for the “rare opportunity.”

Abu Riash added that he is happy to see Palestinians from the West Bank traveling on the same flights to Doha with Israelis. “I hope they enjoy it; we are the same; the Israeli-Arabs, the Palestinians from the West Bank, and the Jews, as all the people must be united.”

Meanwhile the tens of thousands of Israelis attending the tournament are being told to tone it down and behave. An ad campaign starring Israeli football star Tal Ben Haim warns Israelis against drinking in Qatar or arguing with locals. Advice cards with emergency contact information were handed out at check-in.

Lior Haiat, head of National Public Diplomacy at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, said they’re also asking Israelis not to openly display where they’re from while in Doha.

“We ask them to tune down their Israeli appearances. It’s not that they should hide it. But we don’t think that showing off their Israeli identity will help them while they’re there. And this is an important thing, both for their security, but also for them enjoying the games,” Haiat said.

Qatar has allowed a small, temporary Israeli consular team to set up in Doha during the tournament to help Israelis – where there is normally no official presence. Palestinians will have access to consular services at the Palestinian embassy in Doha.

Haiat said they hope this temporary consular team will one day turn permanent.

“When we started the Abraham Accords, the idea was to bring other partners to the circle of peace. And Qatar is certainly one of the candidates,” he said, referencing the 2020 normalizing agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

But for the fans, their eyes are on the ball – not politics.

“We don’t mix politics with the soccer, you know, you get to know the people, the locals. I don’t care what they think about politics or nothing. I come to enjoy,” Levin said as he prepared to board the first flight from Tel Aviv to Doha.

Iran’s players did not sing their national anthem before their opening game of the World Cup in Qatar against England on Monday.

As the anthem played over the stadium loudspeakers, and the players remained tight lipped, a large contingent of Iranian supporters appeared to be jubilant, cheering throughout.

Outside the stadium, before the game, CNN witnessed a number of Iran supporters wearing protest t-shirts, with slogans such as “Free Iran” or “Rise with the women of Iran.”

Defender Ehsan Hajsafi on Sunday became the first member of Iran’s national team to speak out from the World Cup in Qatar in apparent support of anti-government protests at home, saying players should be the voice of those suffering.

Here’s the latest:

  • Iranian authorities on Sunday arrested two well-known Iranian actresses, Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi, after they showed support for protesters.
  • Thirteen people were killed over 24 hours in four of Iran’s Kurdish cities after an intensified crackdown by security forces, Azhin Shekhi, from the Kurdish rights organization Hengaw, told CNN on Monday.
  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said he is “greatly concerned” by reports of violence against protesters in the Kurdish-Iranian city of Mahabad.
  • Iran’s judiciary on Sunday said it had sentenced to death a sixth person who is accused of taking part in recent protests.

Saudi crown prince meets Thai PM after three-decade diplomatic freeze

Thailand’s prime minister met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday in Bangkok, signing agreements to expand diplomatic relations restored this year more than three decades after Saudi Arabia downgraded ties over a jewelry theft, Reuters reported.

  • Background: Saudi Arabia downgraded diplomatic relations in 1989 following a row over the theft of around $20 million-worth of jewels by a Thai janitor working in the palace of a Saudi prince, in what became known as the “Blue Diamond Affair.” A large number of the gems, including a rare blue diamond, were never recovered. The theft remains an unsolved mystery and was followed by the execution-style murder in Thailand of three Saudi diplomats. The two countries restored full diplomatic ties in January.
  • Why it matters: Thailand is hoping that its improving relationship with Saudi Arabia could give it an economic boost. Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil into industries like food and agriculture, which makes Thailand a good partner, while Thailand stands to benefit from energy-related projects and medical tourism, Ben Kiatkwankul, partner at government affairs advisory Maverick Consulting Group, told Reuters.

Qatar, China sign ‘longest ever’ liquefied gas contract

QatarEnergy signed a 27-year sales and purchase agreement with China’s Sinopec, the longest in the history of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) deals, its chief Saad al-Kaabi told Reuters on Monday. He said the deal covers 4 million tons of LNG over the period.

  • Background: Qatar, the world’s biggest LNG exporter, sits on the world’s biggest natural gas field, which it shares with Iran. Much of its gas goes to Asia.
  • Why it matters: The deal with China comes as Western nations look for new sources of gas amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Qatar has said that it prefers energy partners that sign long-term contracts, which Europeans have been reluctant to do. Al-Kaabi, who is also energy minister, told CNN earlier this year that Qatar plans to allocate more gas to Europe. Qatar’s gas capacity is set to rise by about 40% in five years.

Turkey launches aerial campaign over northern Syria in retaliation for Istanbul attacks

Turkish warplanes targeted multiple locations along the Syrian border late Saturday, the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said. Turkish fighter jets conducted airstrikes around Kobani, Dahir al-Arab village and al-Beilonya, the SDF head of media, Ferhad Shami, said via Twitter.

  • Background: Last week, an explosion killed at least six people and injured at least 81 others in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, according to the Turkish Interior Ministry. A woman has been detained under suspicion of carrying out the deadly blast and has been identified as a Syrian national who was trained by Kurdish militants, according to Turkish authorities.
  • Why it matters: Turkish officials believe Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) were most likely behind the suspected bomb attack, the country’s Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters last week. Both Turkey and the US consider the PKK a terrorist organization. The two countries disagree on the status of the military wing of the PYD’s People’s Defense Units (YPG), which has been a US ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkey considers it the Syrian extension of the PKK.
The tombs of Moussa Ibrahim Menasha and Marietta Lichaa Menasha, following restoration work in the Bassatine Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt.

One of the oldest operational Jewish cemeteries in the world just re-opened in Cairo after three years of laborious restoration.

Known as the Lichaa and Menasha burial sites in Cairo, the area is the sole remaining portion of Egypt’s Karaite Jewish cemetery, also known as the Bassatine Cemetery.

Karaism is an early medieval Jewish movement that rejects the rabbinic Judaism of the Talmud practiced by most Jews around the world today. Its followers instead base their practices on direct interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.

The cemetery was established by the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf Qaitbay in 1482, according to the American Research Center in Egypt, and is today the third oldest operational Jewish cemetery in the world. The cemetery is a burial site to a number of Jewish families and is under the care of the Egyptian Jewish Community in Cairo, which is represented by the Drop of Milk Association.

The Lichaa and Menasha burial sites were restored in a joint venture between the US Embassy in Cairo, the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) and representatives of American and Egyptian Jewish organizations.

The US Department of State issued a $150,000 grant (approximately 2.25 million Egyptian Pounds) to ARCE and its partner, the Drop of Milk Foundation, to fund the cemetery’s restoration, said the US embassy in a Sunday statement.

“This is a cause for celebration for all of Egypt, firstly because we are a multicultural country where pharaohs, Romans, Greeks, Muslims, Copts and Jews have lived,” Magda Haroun, the head of the Jewish community in Egypt, told UAE newspaper The National.

“And second because the people buried here deserve to be remembered. They were real Egyptians who contributed to its renaissance,” she said.

Egypt’s Jewish community is dwindling, falling to a mere 100 Jews today compared to around 80,000 in 1948, when Israel was established, according to the World Jewish Congress.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh poses for a photo on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, UAE.