The humanitarian and healthcare crisis caused due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is proving to be an opportunity for nations to rebuild their trust and relationships with each other. On Tuesday, May 19, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sent an unmarked Etihad Airways plane on a historic flight to Israel to deliver aid to help the Palestinians fight the coronavirus pandemic. The flight was the first known direct commercial flight between the two countries.
The flight took place even as the UAE does not have any formal diplomatic ties with Israel and there are no commercial flights between the two countries. The Etihad Airways cargo jet, which wasn't carrying any identifiable hallmark logos, flew from the UAE's capital Abu Dhabi and landed in Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport at 9 pm on May 19. The United Nations-facilitated flight was on an apparent humanitarian mission carrying sixteen tons of aid meant for the occupied Palestinian territories.
UAE Doesn't Recognize Israel
The UAE, along with may other Arab states including Saudi Arabia, does not officially recognize Israel as a country over the Jewish state's alleged occupation of the land that the Palestinians have been demanding to build a separate Muslim state just like other Arab states.
The flight marked a moment of cooperation between the UAE, which comprises seven emirates including Dubai, and Israel, after years of speculations that the two countries were holding back-channel discussions over their mutual enemy Iran.
Etihad confirms flight
Meanwhile, Etihad Airways, the state-owned, long-hail airline operator based in Abu Dhabi and the second-largest carries in the UAE, confirmed the flight to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport on May 19.
"Etihad Airways operated a dedicated humanitarian cargo flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv on 19 May to provide medical supplies to the Palestinians," the airline told in a statement. It also confirmed that "the flight had no passengers on board." All private and diplomatic chartered planes, between the two countries, have to travel to a third country before heading into Israel.
Israel welcomes flight
The momentous flight has been hailed and welcomed by Israeli media, and the Israel Airports Authority has confirmed the cargo landed at Ben-Gurion on the night of May 19. However, the Emirati government official is yet to respond to media requests for comment.
According to media reports, the flight landed in Israel with ground crews pulling out pallets of cargo bearing both the Emirati and Israeli flags. The UAE's state-owned WAM news agency issued a statement saying that the UAE delivered around fourteen tons of protective gear, medical supplies, and ventilators to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in the "occupied Palestinian territory." However, it did not acknowledge the flight not its significance.
It is worth noting that neither the Gaza Strip nor the West Bank, in the supposed Palestinian territories, have their own airports, which means that most cargo meant for Palestinian people must enter through Israel. The aid material was likely required to be airlifted from the UAE, which hosts humanitarian stockpiles for the UN.
UAE and Israel's attempts to bolster ties
The UAE, which was formed in 1971, does not have any significant history with Jews or Israel like other Persian and Arab nations, but a lack of diplomatic ties between the two countries hasn't stopped either side from trying to open the lines of communication.
UAE officials have allowed Israeli officials to visit the Emirates and the Israeli national anthem was played in an Abu Dhabi judo tournament after an Israeli athlete had won gold. Israel also reportedly has a small mission representing its interests at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.
'No contact with Israel wrong decision' – UAE Foreign Minister
"Many, many years ago, when there was an Arab decision not to have contact with Israel, that was a very, very wrong decision, looking back," Anwar Gargash, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, told the UAE-based English language daily, The National during an interview last year.
Before the coronavirus pandemic delayed the Dubai Expo 2020, Israel was expected to participate in the mega fair for the first time. However, Israel will take part in the delayed Expo 2020 next year. The country's participation in the expo has been hailed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry which looks forward to showcasing the country's technology.
Dubai's Synagogue and Abu Dhabi's Abrahamic Family House
Dubai has a secret synagogue which regularly draws many Jews. The UAE also announced plans to build the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which will comprise of a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, all under one compound. Israeli visitors traveling to the UAE with Western passports routinely enter the country without any problem, though the airport authorities sometimes make a phone call between the two countries.
Is the perception of Israel changing in the Arab world?
In recent times, the perception of Israel is changing in other Arab states as well. In 2018, Oman, which has strong ties with Iran, hosted Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a surprise visit that served to remind Washington of Oman's unique ability to be a mediator for talks with Israel and Iran.
Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE, reportedly relies on Israeli spyware to keep track of government critics. A Saudi television show called "Umm Haroun," or Mother of Aaron, which airs as a Ramadan special is also helping mend misconceptions and Jewish stereotypes in the kingdom.
Iran and Turkey still resilient
But the efforts remain highly controversial and debatable among Muslims, particularly in Iran and Turkey, as Palestinians remain without a state of their own despite decades of pleading and hostility.
The UAE recently criticized Netanyahu's plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank and warned Israel of "dangerous repercussions," if it went ahead with the annexation. Tensions between Israel and UAE also rose after suspected Mossad assassins reportedly killed a top Hamas operative in a Dubai hotel in 201, an act which has never been acknowledged by Israel.
All these concerns may have likely contributed in part in Etihad's decision to fly the airplane unmarked into Tel Aviv, following Egypt's model for its own flights to Israel on its Air Sinai routes.
The UAE is also suspicious of Islamist militant group Hamas which holds the Gaza Strip, and Qatar which the UAE boycotted since 2017 in a political dispute, is alleged to donate funds to Gaza. Qatar is often seen as a mediator between the warring Israel and Hamas.
Iran criticizes UAE over flight to Israel
Iran, which is allegedly the biggest enemy of the Jewish State has condemned the first flight between the UAE and Israel, with its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling the move as a form of "treachery" and a "betrayal" of the Palestinians.
"Today, some Persian Gulf states have committed the biggest treachery against their own history and the history of the Arab world. They have betrayed #Palestine by supporting Israel," Khamenei wrote on Twitter, condemning the flight. "Will the nations of these states tolerate their leaders' betrayal?" he questioned in the tweet.
#BoycottUAE trends on Twitter
The move has also sparked a Twitter hashtag #BoycottUAE, with the hashtag trending in many Muslim countries such as Pakistan, where social media users see the move as an attempt towards normalization of ties between the two countries.
Of all the Persian Gulf states only Egypt and Jordan officially recognize Israel in the region, while no other Middle Eastern countries maintain ties with the Jewish State. However, the call to boycott Israel has been diminishing in the Arab world as
even conservative Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, under the 34-year-old de facto ruler and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are welcoming the idea of normalization of ties with the country.
Palestinians yet to confirm receiving aid
Although Israel has confirmed the flight landing, Palestinian officials are reportedly yet to confirm receiving the UAE aid and it is still unclear whether the aid will go to the occupied Gaza Strip which suffers the most from am incapacitating blockade ruled by the militant group Hamas.
Coronavirus in Israel and Palestine
Meanwhile, Israel and Palestinian authorities imposed coronavirus lockdowns in mid-March to contain the spread of the virus, by limiting internal travel and public gatherings and forcing non-essential businesses to shutter down.
Recently, many of the restrictions are being lifted in the region as the rate of new infections has been reported declining. The Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina, will reopen next week after the Eid-al-Fitr holiday, which marked the conclusion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The mosque had been closed since March over the fears of the contagion spreading.
More than 16,650 cases of COVID-19 infection and 279 fatalities have been reported in Israel as of May 20, while the Palestinian Authority has reported around 390 cases and two deaths so far. Israel's Health Minister recently claimed that the country had found a major "breakthrough" in its quest for finding a potential vaccine for the virus.