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Israeli aircraft flies over Sudan for first time in sign of growing normalisation

Netanyahu met with Sudanese leader Burhan two weeks ago San [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 17 February, 2020

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Just weeks after a secret meeting between Israel's prime minister and Sudan's leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, an Israeli aircraft flew into Sudanese airspace for the first time.

An Israeli aircraft has flown through Sudanese airspace for the first time, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called another example of warming ties between the two formally hostile states.

"The first Israeli airplane passed yesterday over the skies of Sudan. This is quite a change," Netanyahu told American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem on Sunday evening, without offering further details.

Israeli daily Haaretz quoted an Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, saying that the plane was "a private Israeli executive jet".

It came after Netanyahu met Sudan's leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan two weeks ago for what the Israeli premier's office described as talks aimed at normalising ties.

A Sudanese government spokesman said later that Burhan "did not give a promise of normalising or having diplomatic relations".

However, Sudan's military head of state said Israel has a key role to play in removing the country from a US blacklist for state sponsors of terror, in comments to Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat just days after the controversial meeting.

Sudanese protesters gathered in the capital Khartoum to denounce what was described as "normalisation with the Zionist entity" after reports of the secret meeting surfaced.

Read more: Sudan's rapprochement with Israel exposes weakness of democratic transition

The demonstrations were just the latest in a series of public anger over reports of the previously unannounced talks in Entebbe.

Sudanese military spokesman Amer Mohamed Al-Hassan told Al-Jazeera the week prior that there was an agreement "in principle" for commercial aircraft travelling from South America to Israel to use Sudan's airspace.

He said that technical aspects of the overflights were being studied and Sudan had not agreed to flights by Israel's national carrier El Al.

Netanyahu has previously expressed interest in opening Sudanese airspace as it would cut hours off flight times from Israel to South America, the fourth most popular destination for Israelis.

Israel remains technically at war with Sudan, which supported hardline Islamists - including, for a period, Al-Qaeda - during the rule of President Omar Al-Bashir.

Bashir was ousted by the army last April following months of mass anti-government demonstrations.

Sudan has been part of a decades-old Arab boycott of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians and its occupation of Arab lands.

The transitional government headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was formed months after the ouster of longtime despot Omar Al-Bashir amid nationwide protests in April last year.

Burhan heads the ruling sovereign council, a joint civilian and military body tasked with overseeing the country's transition to civilian rule.

Sudanese top brass have backed Burhan's initiative in holding the meeting, saying it will help boost national security. The cabinet says it was not informed of the meeting in advance.

Increasing normalisation

In the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967 in which Israel occupied the Palestinian territories and seized the Golan Heights from Syria, Arab leaders gathered in Khartoum to announce what became known as the "three nos": no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that visible signs of a thaw in relations with Sudan and other Muslim-majority countries were only the tip of the diplomatic iceberg.

"How much is above the surface in an iceberg? It's about 10 percent," he said. "What you're seeing is about 10 percent. Vast changes are coming."

There are only a handful of "Muslim or Arab countries around the world that we don't have deepened ties with", the prime minister added. 

"Sometimes it comes out in the open."

Gulf Arab countries have made a number of recent moves hinting at warmer ties with Israel, prompted largely by a shared enmity towards Iran.

Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018 - a friend of Oman - and he frequently says the boycott of his country is ending, despite the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Egypt and Jordan are so far the only Arab states to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Netanyahu was speaking two weeks ahead of a March general election, the third in 12 months. He has twice failed to form a government after inconclusive polls.

The controversial warming relations came amid global uproar over US President Donald Trump's supposed Deal of the Century plan which had aimed to solve the Israel-Palestinian issue but was widely rejected as favourable to Israel.

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