The Interior Ministry announced on Sunday that it will now permit Israelis to visit Saudi Arabia, for the first time in Israel’s history. The new rules will allow travel to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic pilgrimages known as the Hajj and the Umrah, or for business trips of up to 90 days. However, business trips will be conditional on the traveler having an invitation from a Saudi official.
Though some Israelis, mainly members of the country’s Arab minority, already travel to Saudi Arabia, they have hitherto done so despite the absence of official permission.
The new rule, which Interior Minister Arye Dery signed on Wednesday, was made in coordination with the defense establishment, the ministry said. Sources familiar with the decision said Dery’s signature was the culmination of a process that “had been brewing for many weeks.”
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The Hajj and Umrah Committee, which is responsible for organizing pilgrimages by Israeli Muslims to Saudi Arabia, said it was surprised by the decision and is not yet certain what its practical implications will be.
Sheikh Abd al-Rahim Fukara, the committee’s spokesman, said that until now, Israeli pilgrims to Saudi Arabia have gone via Jordan, with the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs arranging their trips. Consequently, he said, any decision that affects this arrangement will have diplomatic and economic ramifications for Jordan, and could even affect Israel’s relations with Jordan.
According to the committee, some 30,000 Israeli pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia every year. Of these, around 4,500 are performing the Hajj and the rest are performing the Umrah.
To make a pilgrimage, they must submit their travel requests to the committee, which forwards them to Jordan. Jordan then obtains the necessary permits from Saudi Arabia and issues a Jordanian laissez-passer. The total cost, including taxes and fees paid to the Jordanian government, comes to tens of thousands of shekels.
Israeli pilgrims can reach Saudi Arabia by either bus or plane from Jordan. Some pilgrims who have gone by plane said that often, the plane will go from Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport to Saudi Arabia with only a brief stopover in Amman to preserve the appearance that they aren’t coming from Israel.
“We don’t yet know if there will be any change with regard to the pilgrimages,” Fukara said. “The decision seems to relate more to people who want to do business or make a private visit.”
“So far, we haven’t gotten any updates from Jordan or Saudi Arabia about a change,” he added. “This may be more of a declarative political step than something real.”
He said 16,000 Israelis have already signed up for the Umrah this spring and paid full price in advance.
There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia on the announcement, which seems to be another sign of Israel’s quiet but warming relationship with the kingdom.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.