MARRAKESH, (Morocco): The first direct commercial flight between Israel and Morocco landed in Marrakesh on Sunday, AFP correspondents said, more than seven months after the countries normalised diplomatic relations in a US-brokered deal.
About 100 passengers from Tel Aviv arrived on an Israir flight early on Sunday afternoon to be 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 told AFP from the tarmac, his mask and bag in the colours of the Moroccan flag.
Israir spokeswoman Tali Leibovitz told AFP that two to three flights per week were planned on the route.
Israeli national carrier El Al announced it too had launched a service to Marrakesh on Sunday, and planned five flights per week there and to Casablanca.
At a ceremony sending off the El Al flight attended by Moroccan envoy Abderrahim Beyyoudh, Israel's Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said the service would boost "trade, tourism and economic cooperation between the countries", according to an El Al statement.
The El Al flight was expected in Marrakesh later in the afternoon.
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.
The move came as the administration of former US president Donald Trump recognised Morocco's sovereignty over Western Sahara, a disputed and divided former Spanish colony.
Morocco is home to North Africa's largest Jewish community, which numbers around 3,000. Some 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin live in Israel.
"It's great to return to the land of my ancestors," said 58-year-old Sophie Levi, originally from Casablanca, who was on the Israir flight. "We're finally breathing again after two years of Covid."
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.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said last week that he would visit Morocco shortly after direct flights commenced.