Cyprus-based Tus Airways is launching a direct route between Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport and Doha’s Hamad International Airport Sunday as part of an agreement reached between Israel and Qatar ahead of the FIFA World Cup.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem advanced the deal last month, despite knowing there wasn’t enough time for a local airline to make the necessary preparations. The ministry highlighted the importance of this agreement, as part of which Israel will operate a team in Qatar to provide consular services for the thousands of Israelis expected to attend the games.
In recent days, the Foreign Ministry assessed that the tight timing between the approval of these direct flights last Thursday and the beginning of the games next week would make it difficult for Israeli airlines to complete their preparations for security arrangements. In any case, most fans wanting to travel to the games did not wait for this historic agreement and purchased tickets on alternate airlines.
Airline sources said that El Al, Arkia and Israir Airlines expressed interest in operating a route to Qatar and asked for security clearance for landing in that country. They claimed that the Foreign Ministry was not ready on time to grant such approval, forcing them to abandon their quest. “We wanted to fly to Qatar and started looking into this possibility,” said a senior official at one of the carriers. “We were told this was subject to security clearance, and the Foreign Ministry did not prepare for granting us those approvals.”
Tus, 49 percent of which is held by Israeli company Knafaim, owned by Tamar Mozes Borovitz, received formal approval from Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority Tuesday to fly directly to Doha. Even before that, Tus received slots and flight rights from Qatar, allowing it to fly from Ben-Gurion with a stopover in Cyprus. After the agreement between Israel, FIFA and Qatar was finalized, Tus changed this to direct flights.
Following the approval, Tus scheduled six round-trip flights, beginning Sunday morning, just before the opening whistle. It may add further flights later. TikTik, a subsidiary of Israir that deals with sporting events, is the sole marketer of these flights in Israel. The price was set at $666 for a round trip flight.
“Israel’s presence in Qatar is the most important aspect of this agreement,” said officials at the Foreign Ministry in describing its main purpose. In recent weeks, there were direct contacts between Jerusalem and Doha, attempting to pave the way for an Israeli consular team which could issue passports and help intoxicated fans who are involved in fights or Israelis who are hospitalized for any reason. A senior Qatari official clarified last week that the aviation agreement could be shelved if there is any escalation in clashes with Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip during the games.
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The consular team, which will include six members along with a representative of the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman’s office, will not arrive on a direct flight. Due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter, the ministry clarified that this would not be a consulate or any other kind of official mission in a country that has no full diplomatic relations with Israel.
There are no precise estimates of the number of Israelis who will travel to Qatar in the coming month, but thousands of fans are expected to attend the games. As of last Thursday, only 3,800 Israeli tourists had received entry permits. Tus Airways’ announcement may significantly boost the number of people jumping at this last-minute opportunity.
In any case, Israel has clarified that even though a large number of Israelis with second passports may make use of these for traveling to Qatar, this could have dramatic consequences in case of trouble. Qatar has clarified that Israeli tourists coming there with a foreign, non-Israeli passport, would not be recognized as Israelis during their stay, and the Foreign Ministry would not be able to help them in case of trouble.
Israel’s agreement with Qatar, achieved under the auspices of FIFA, included, for the first time, the granting of opportunities for Palestinians living in the occupied territories to enter Israel and fly from Ben-Gurion Airport. Qatar exerted much pressure in order to create a stream of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza traveling to Qatar for the games. Even though the two sides agreed on this unusual arrangement, as of last Tuesday not a single Palestinian had requested to use this route, and it seems that Palestinian ticket purchasers will prefer to reach Qatar using the usual way they travel overseas, going through Jordan.
Ahead of the games, the Prime Minister’s Office’s information service, the Foreign Ministry and the Football Association initiated a campaign meant to “educate” Israeli tourists, teaching them about the cultural and legal differences between Israel and Qatar. This includes a prohibition on alcohol and drug consumption, and on ticket scalping.
The campaign is led by former national soccer team captain Tal Ben-Haim, and is meant to minimize cases of Israelis getting into trouble in Qatar. The campaign was born out of an understanding that critical information must be made available to thousands of fans who are expected to travel to Qatar, a Muslim country with no diplomatic ties with Israel,” officials said. They added that the purpose is to provide Israeli travelers with instructions and information from the moment they land and throughout their stay and to give them ways to contact the Foreign Ministry in case of emergency.”