ISLAMABAD: The government on Saturday strongly denied that a private business jet flew to Islamabad from Tel Aviv (Israel) via Amman (Jordan) and went back, but opposition parties, dissatisfied with official clarifications, called for a “convincing explanation” on the matter.

The editor of Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s English edition, Ami Scharf, started the controversy by claiming in a tweet that the jet travelled to Islamabad from Tel Aviv and remained on ground in Pakistani capital for nearly 10 hours. He said the jet made a brief stopover in Amman on the way to Islamabad because of which it got a new call sign and became an Amman-Islamabad flight.

Govt denies Israeli journalist’s assertion but opposition seeks ‘convincing’ explanation

It is claimed that the aircraft bearing tail number M-ULTI landed in Islamabad on Oct 24 at 5:40am. The journalist, citing data of flight tracking website flightradar24, said the plane descended from 40,000 feet to 20,000ft near Islamabad before going out of coverage. The aircraft reappeared 10 hours later heading south-west from Islamabad. It followed the same flight path for the return journey making a landing in Amman and then taking off for Tel Aviv.

The mysterious trip happened a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the first visit to Oman by an Israeli premier in over 20 years. That visit too was kept secret till Mr Netanyahu tweeted a video of a meeting and reception in Amman.

A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority rejected the claim about a private jet that originated its flight from Tel Aviv visiting Islamabad and said there was no truth in any Israeli aeroplane landing at any Pakistani airport.

Pakistan does not recognise Israel and, therefore, doesn’t have diplomatic relations with it. Therefore, the landing of an Israeli aircraft at a Pakistani airport, except for emergencies, would be highly unlikely. However, it is important to note that the aircraft is registered in the Isle of Man, but is operated out of Ben Gurion for chartered flights.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the claim was a conspiracy to sabotage the Black Day being observed to condemn Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir and discredit the Pakistan government and state institutions before the public.

That led to an exchange of interesting arguments on Twitter between Mr Chaudhry and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Ahsan Iqbal when the latter asked the government to “explain the exact situation”.

The minister sharply hit back saying, “Imran Khan is neither Nawaz Sharif nor does his cabinet have fake Aristotles. We will not hold secret dialogue with Modi and nor would do so with Israel.” Mr Iqbal responded to the tweet saying the way information minister had angrily reacted showed “there is something fishy”.

In Multan, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi also said the Israeli plane story was baseless.

On the other hand, Pakistan People’s Party vice president Sherry Rehman said the government should explain who came in the aircraft. The decisions that would be taken without taking the nation into confidence would not be acceptable, she said.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman said the aircraft story vindicated their stance about the incumbent government.

As the government clarifications came in and the opposition criticism grew, Mr Scharf put out more details. “As my previous post caused uproar in Pakistan, here are all the details I have, and have not...” he tweeted. He then gave the time when the aircraft began it descent into Islamabad and the registration details of the jet.

He further said: “Pakistan government issues denial. I’m sure @flightradar24 can tell what was final altitude and when landed. But I assume they won’t”.

Analysts questioned the motives of the Israeli journalist behind making the claim.

At the end of the day, Mr Scharf himself put the authenticity of his own claim to question by saying he was not sure if the plane landed at Islamabad and might have just flown over the city. But, at the same time, he noted that there was no point in descending from 40,000 feet to 20,000ft over Islamabad if the aircraft were to continue its journey further north, where the mountains were very high.

Pakistan and Israel have long maintained undeclared contacts at lower level and the only known interaction took place on Sept 1, 2005 between the then foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri and his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2018

 

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