A private Israeli jet landed in Pakistan despite the fact that the two countries hold no formal relations, Pakistani airbase staff and pilots have confirmed.
The jet in question landed at Noor Khan Airbase, a military airbase in Rawalpindi south of the Pakistani capital Islamabad on 24 October. Yet despite rumours of the landing circulating for over a week, yesterday marked the first confirmation of the event by eyewitnesses.
Rumours of the flight first emerged on 25 October when Avi Scharf, editor of Haaretz' English edition, tweeted a flight map allegedly showing a private jet flying from Tel Aviv to Islamabad. Scharf tweeted that the plane was "on the ground 10 hours, and [flew] back to TLV". He added that the place "cleared flight-plan with usual 5min groundtime trick in Amman," a stopover previously used by Israeli aircraft flying to countries with which it has no relations.
A Twitter storm quickly followed, with some speculating that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been on board the plane to visit Pakistan ahead of his visit to Oman on 26 October.
Pakistan sought to curb the rumours, with Pakistan's Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry saying on 28 October that the Pakistani government would not hold secret dialogues with Israel. Chaudhry wrote on Twitter: "The truth is that [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan is not Nawaz Sharif," the former Pakistani PM who in 1998 allegedly sent a secret envoy to assure Netanyahu that Pakistan would not share its nuclear capabilities with Iran. Chaudhry's tweet continued:
We will not hold secret dialogues with [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi or Israel. Nobody needs to worry as Pakistan is in safe hands.
Pakistan's President Arif Alvi was also forced to issue a statement, saying that Pakistan will not establish ties with Israel and that it supports the Palestinians because the Gaza Strip has also faced "unprecedented atrocities" like Kashmir – which is contested by Pakistan, India and China.
Yet despite the government's attempts to bury the speculation, witnesses to the event have confirmed that an Israeli plane did indeed land in Pakistan on 24 October. The Israeli jet was spotted by a pilot as it flew next to his own plane, shortly before landing in Rawalpindi. The pilot spoke to Middle East Eye (MEE) on condition of anonymity, "due to the sensitivity of the subject".
The pilot's account was subsequently confirmed by three members of staff at the airbase in question. "One [staff member] said he saw a car pick up a delegation at the steps of the plane which returned several hours later," MEE added.
The question of what an Israeli plane was doing in Pakistan, who was on board the jet and what they did during the ten hours the plane was allegedly grounded remain to be answered.
The landing comes against the backdrop of fervent normalisation efforts between Israel and a variety of Muslim countries in recent weeks, including visits by Israeli establishment figures to Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Diplomatic overtures have also been made between Israel and Bahrain, in what is thought to be preparation for open relations between the two countries and a visit to the Gulf state by Netanyahu.
Israel and Pakistan do not hold formal diplomatic relations, and Israeli passports are not valid for travel to Pakistan. Historically Pakistan has supported the Palestinian or wider Arab position on Israel, supporting the Arab armies in the Six Day War of 1967 and the 1973 War, known as the Yom Kippur War. However it is thought that Israel and Pakistan have dealt with one another via their respective intelligence agencies – the Pakistani ISI and the Israeli Mossad – particularly during the Soviet-Afghan War between 1979 and 1989.