Israelis land in Tel Aviv after unscheduled, unprecedented stop in Saudi Arabia

An Air Seychelles jet with at least 128 Israelis on board became the first direct passenger flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel on Tuesday when it brought home passengers who spent the night in Jeddah after their flight was forced to land due to a technical issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the kingdom for the warm welcome given to the Israelis.  Passengers also said that their initial fears upon discovering they were in a country with no diplomatic ties to Israel were quickly allayed by the “uber-nice” Saudi welcome.

“I really appreciate the warm way in which the Saudi authorities treated the Israeli passengers,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I really appreciate the good neighborliness.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal ties, making the presence of the Israelis there a potential diplomatic issue. The countries have inched closer in recent years and are reportedly nearing a possible US-brokered diplomatic breakthrough, with the flight representing a rare instance of public cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Air Seychelles flight HM022 had been scheduled to ferry 128 Israeli passengers and an unknown number of other foreign nationals from the Indian Ocean islands to Tel Aviv on Monday night. But it instead diverted to Jeddah due to a technical issue, the airline said in a statement.

According to Hebrew media outlets, the problem was an electrical issue and pilots did not declare an emergency landing.

The airline later dispatched another aircraft to Jeddah to pick up the passengers. It landed at Ben Gurion at 2 p.m. Tuesday after an approximately two-hour flight, in what appeared to be the first-ever direct passenger flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Passengers said they were quite nervous landing in a country that has traditionally been hostile to Israel, but were very pleased with the warm welcome they received. They were housed in an airport hotel overnight.

“The reception we got from the Saudis was very surprising,” Emmanuelle Arbel, one of the passengers, told Radio 103FM from the airport hotel early Tuesday. “They said to us ‘You are most welcome’ and were smiling. In truth, we were not expecting this.”

Arbel said when they first landed in Jeddah “we were a bit stressed, we did not know what was happening.”

Some people started crying, she said.

Another passenger, Chen Giladi, told the Ynet news site that the overhead lights suddenly went out on one side of the aircraft during the flight, accompanied by an acrid smell before the plane made its unscheduled landing.

Giladi said that during the descent, the passengers were told they would be landing in Saudi Arabia. They were then kept on board for several hours.

“That’s when three hours of stress started. We were really afraid to get off the plane,” she said.

However, once they disembarked, the treatment from the Saudis was exceptional, passengers said

“They took us in buses to a lovely hotel at the terminal, they treated us very well. From the moment we disembarked they greeted us with ‘shalom’ in Hebrew and made us feel good. They are very nice here,” she said.

Other passengers agreed.

“They were uber-nice, we were pleasantly surprised,” Racheli Miller told Ynet, adding that they had been housed in a luxury hotel. “But yes, we want to come home, there is no place like home.”

Illustrative: Pilgrims arrive at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Other passengers described how the locals at the airport helped the Israelis connect to Wi-Fi so that they could contact worried relatives at home.

“They were super generous,” one person said, sharing a video of the Israelis waiting at the departure gate.

Jeddah Airport is an alternate landing site for routes to Israel that pass over Saudi airspace and is approved in advance for such flights in case of a need for unscheduled or emergency landings.

Since last year, the kingdom has allowed flights to Israel to cross over its airspace.

Saudi Arabia only began allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain after the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020.

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