JERUSALEM: Two Israeli carriers on Sunday launched nonstop commercial flights to Marrakesh from Tel Aviv following the upgrading of diplomatic relations last year between Morocco and Israel.
Israel and Morocco agreed last December to upgrade diplomatic ties and relaunch direct flights — part of a deal brokered by the United States that also included Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
“This route will help promote tourism, trade and economic cooperation between the two countries,” said Israeli Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov.
Israir flight 61 took off at 8:15am for the five-and-a-half-hour flight, with stewards wearing traditional Moroccan garb and serving Moroccan food. El Al Israel Airlines flight 553 took off at 11:35am.
More carriers are expected to start flights next month
El Al, Israel’s flag carrier which was hit hard last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, said it would operate up to five flights a week to Morocco on Boeing 737 planes.
Smaller rival Israir said it would operate two flights a week on its route to Marrakesh.
Israel’s Arkia and Royal Air Maroc are also expected to start flights in the next month.
About 100 passengers from Tel Aviv who arrived on an Israir flight in the afternoon were met with dates, cakes and mint tea at a welcoming ceremony organised in their honour.
“I am originally from Marrakesh. I’ve come back here around 30 times but this time, the trip has a special flavour — it’s as if it were the first time,” an emotional Pinhas Moyal said from the tarmac, his mask and bag in the colours of the Moroccan flag.
Morocco was home to one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East for centuries until Israel’s founding in 1948. An estimated quarter of a million left Morocco for Israel from 1948 to 1964.
Today only about 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis claim some Moroccan ancestry.
Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel, including the opening of liaison offices, as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.
In March, Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui said she expected 200,000 Israeli visitors in the first year following the resumption of direct flights. That compares with about 13 million yearly total foreign tourists before the pandemic.
Tourism revenue in Morocco fell by 53.8 per cent to 36.3 billion dirhams ($3.8bn) in 2020.
Morocco was one of four regional states to agree to normalise ties with Israel last year, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.
Some 50,000 to 70,000 tourists annually travelled to Morocco from Israel via third countries before the coronavirus pandemic, many of them of Moroccan origin.
In December last year, a direct flight carrying Israeli officials travelled from Tel Aviv to Rabat, where they signed several bilateral deals, including on air links.
Rabat had a liaison office in Tel Aviv but relations came to a halt during the 2000-2005 second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
The normalisation deals between Arab states and Israel have been deemed a “betrayal” by the Palestinians, who believe the process should only follow a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2021