JERUSALEM (AP) — Soccer fans from Israel and the Palestinian territories will be able to fly directly to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar from Tel Aviv for the first time, soccer’s global governing body announced Thursday. The development is a breakthrough agreement for Israel and Qatar — two countries without diplomatic relations.
The charter flights to Doha from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for the tournament starting Nov. 20 will be open to all Palestinians, FIFA said, including 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. Such permits are only approved, if at all, shortly before takeoff.
Israel may still refuse to grant exit permits to residents of Gaza seeking to fly out of Tel Aviv to attend the World Cup.
In the past, Palestinians in blockaded Gaza have not been able to leave the territory or fly out of Tel Aviv for the World Cup. Such permission was only granted in exceptional circumstances.
Israeli citizens cannot ordinarily fly directly to Doha or enter Qatar on their Israeli passports. Although Doha was home to an Israeli trade office from 1996 to 2008, relations later soured. Even without diplomatic relations, Qatar still helps mediate between Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers during rounds of conflict.
The breakthrough travel arrangement could still fall apart.
The Qatari government said that Doha told Israel that “any escalation in Jerusalem, Gaza or the West Bank during this time will risk the cancellation of the agreement — including the direct flights.” Violence in the West Bank has surged in recent months, making 2022 the deadliest in the occupied territory since 2006.
FIFA also announced on Thursday that a temporary consular service would assist Israelis in Doha during the tournament. Some 3,800 Israelis and 8,000 Palestinians have 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 privately operated international travel company based in Doha,” FIFA said.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the agreement as the result “hard work over the course of many months.”
A Qatari government statement said the travel arrangement for Israeli citizens was “part of Qatar’s commitment to FIFA’s hosting requirements and it should not be politicized.”
Israel has previously made inroads into the region in part due to international events. Dubai’s Expo 2020 world’s fair saw Israel participate. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel two years ago.
To head off criticism, Qatar stressed that “its stance on normalization has not changed" and that the country continues to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel as the solution to the decades-old conflict. There have been no serious peace talks in more than a decade.
“As of late, we have not seen any positive developments in the peace process that would merit a change in our policy,” the Qatari government added.
Qatar consented to welcoming all fans into the country when it started campaigning to host the World Cup, and when it signed contracts with FIFA after winning the vote in December 2010. A similar obligation was made to respect FIFA commercial partners by easing Qatar’s strict limits on the consumption and purchase of alcohol so it could be served at official World Cup sites.
The tournament — the first World Cup to be hosted in the Middle East and an Arab nation — runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18.
However, Israeli and Palestinian fans won't be supporting their national teams at the world's largest sporting event.
The Israeli national team, which has not played in Asian qualifying for the World Cup since the 1970s for security reasons, did not advance to the tournament in Qatar 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 Dec. 2 to ease the demand on a limited supply of accommodation in the tiny emirate when all 32 teams are still playing. Ticketless fans can arrive later, in time for the first knockout round of 16 teams.
Dunbar reported from Geneva. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.
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Isabel Debre And Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press