Etihad just made the first-ever known airline flight from the United Arab Emirates to Israel

May 20, 2020

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A commercial flight from the United Arab Emirates has landed in Israel — the first time that an airline flight from the UAE is known to have arrived in the country. On Tuesday, an Etihad Airways jet from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv touched down with a load of cargo destined for the Palestinian Authority. It’s a major development in the Middle East, one brought about by the extraordinary circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic. Up to now, no Emirati airlines had landed in Israel; the two countries have no diplomatic relations.

The Associated Press reported that Etihad “operated a dedicated humanitarian cargo flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv on 19 May to provide medical supplies to the Palestinians”, and that “the flight had no passengers on board”.

Relations between Israel and Arab countries remain a highly sensitive issue; the aeroplane that flew to Tel Aviv bore no airline logos nor any evident national identifiers except for a registration. An image published by the Times of Israel showed an Airbus A330 in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday being loaded with cargo bearing Emirati flags. Painted all white and lacking any visible Etihad logos, it bore the letters YP on its front landing gear doors, consistent with an Airbus A330-200 with the Emirati registration A6-EYP — which several fleet-tracking sites show is part of the Etihad fleet.

A tweet by Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon showed a flight track from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv by an A330 registered A6-EYP, confirming the identity of the jet. In the tweet, Danon expressed a wish that passenger flights would soon follow.

Flight-tracking site FlightAware also showed A6-EYP flying between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv on Tuesday, on a circuitous route that avoided Saudi and Jordanian airspace — the most direct flight path — and going instead over Iraq and Syria.

Israeli flag carrier El Al flies similarly circuitous routings to points east of Israel, in order to avoid the airspaces of countries with which it has, officially, adversarial relations. For example, El Al’s flight LY83 from Bangkok to Tel Aviv skirts the Arabian Peninsula to avoid Omani and Saudi airspace — as the FlightAware track of the last flight before it was suspended due to the pandemic in March shows.

Emirati government officials did not respond to requests for comment from the Associated Press, but the government-run news agency WAM did publish a story — complete with a video showing A6-EYP being loaded and unloaded — saying that the UAE had shipped 14 tons of medical gear “to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact in the occupied Palestinian territory”. The article made no mention of a flight to Tel Aviv or of state-owned Etihad carrying it out.

An Israeli official who spoke to the Times of Israel confirmed that the plane carried aid provided by the UAE to the Palestinians through the World Food Program, and that the flight had been coordinated with the Israeli government. It’s a measure of how sensitive the issue of Israeli-Palestinian, and Isreali-Arab, relations is that the official would only speak on condition of anonymity.

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