Turkish airline Atlasjet began operating last week indirect charter flights for religious pilgrims from Nigeria to Israel by way of the Turkish city of Antalya.
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The arrangement follows the signing of a new flight agreement last week between Israel and Nigeria allowing regular direct flights between the two countries. The agreement will allow direct flights between Ben-Gurion International Airport and a number of destinations in Nigeria, like Abuja and Lagos, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said on Saturday.
These recent developments are unusual since in recent years Israel's security services forbade Israeli airline El Al from flying to and from Nigeria due to fears of potential terror attacks originating there. Instead, Nigerian pilgrims fly to Israel using foreign airlines. Additionally, Israeli airlines have been prevented from flying to Turkey due to Turkish authorities' refusal to accede to Israeli security requirements; however Turkish airlines are not restricted from flying to Israel.
"There is no connection between the Israel-Nigera flight agreement and charter flights for pilgrims," the Transportation Ministry said in a statement. "The identity of the company operating the charter flights is a commercial matter in which the government is not involved."
Recently, this situation led El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy to send a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to intervene to either gain access for Israeli airlines to fly to Turkey or retaliate by restricting the amount of Turkish airlines' flights to Israel.
The situation, Shkedy wrote, constituted "incomprehensible support by the State of Israel for the international expansion of the Turkish airline companies at the expense of the Israeli airline companies, which are prevented from flying."
El Al refused to comment regarding the chartered pilgrim flights to Israel via Antalya.
Incoming tourism from African pilgrims is one of the major sectors in the Israeli tourism and aviation markets. African pilgrims typically spend a week in Israel touring Christian holy places such as Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Following the signing of the new flight agreement, the Shin Bet security service said that Israeli airlines could fly from Nigeria in accordance with security measures determined by the service. "In general, the Shin Bet does not oppose pilgrims' flights to Israel should these flights meet the conditions set by the designated authorities," the Shin Bet said in a statement.
Atlasjet previously flew groups of Nigerian pilgrims to Israel in 2011, in place of El Al, following heightened security requirements for the Israeli company. At the time, the Israeli airline was supposed to fly between 12,000 and 15,000 pilgrims from Nigeria over a two-month period. Atlasjet was able to serve the pilgrims instead because Israel's Civil Aviation Authority has less stringent security requirements for foreign airlines.