Israel launches flights for West Bank Palestinians, first flight departs for Cyprus
Israel on Monday launched a scheme allowing Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to fly abroad from an airport in the Negev desert.
Forty Palestinians were aboard the first flight from Ramon airport near the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, a spokeswoman for the Israel Airports Authority told AFP.
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The flight operated by Israeli airline Arkia is expected to land in Larnaca, Cyprus, at 12:45 pm (0945 GMT) on Monday.
While residents of Israeli settlements in the West Bank can travel abroad from Israel's main international airport near Tel Aviv, the vast majority of Palestinians from the territory are banned from doing so.
Palestinians must instead make an overland crossing from the West Bank to Jordan, before boarding a flight in the country’s capital Amman.
The King Hussein (Allenby) crossing between Jordan and the West Bank last month saw “an unprecedented rise in the number of travelers,” a Jordanian official said.
A spokesperson from COGAT, the Israeli defense ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, confirmed Palestinians were aboard Monday’s flight to Larnaca.
Rather than permit Palestinians to fly from Ramon, some 180 kilometres (112 miles) south of the West Bank, Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on Israel to instead reopen Jerusalem airport.
“He demanded these authorities open Jerusalem airport in the Qalandia area, and remove obstacles to the movement of individuals and goods to and from Palestine,” a cabinet meeting statement said last month.
The airport in east Jerusalem was used by Palestinians until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the area and other Palestinian territories.
Israelis operated the Jerusalem airport until 2001 and it has since been deserted, though there are plans to build a settlement on the site.
The first flights in the Ramon pilot program were expected to be operated by Turkish airlines.
The Israel Airports Authority said Sunday that the involvement of foreign firms in the scheme had been postponed.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is due to travel Monday to the Turkish capital Ankara, days after Turkey and Israel restored full diplomatic relations.
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