The Middle East conflict at 35,000 feet

By Paul Moss
BBC News


It is not just the election results that show that Israelis have different views about who should be running the country: a flight to Tel Aviv can provide a glimpse into some of the simmering tensions in the Middle East.

The conflict was awfully familiar.

The Israelis were arguing with the non-Israelis, and indeed with each other - over who was entitled to what territory.

Some were polite, but others more hostile. It was an ugly scene. At one point, I thought people might well come to blows.

And still they could not sort it out. Who was supposed to be in what seat? The plane had not even taken off yet, but already Flight 2085, from Luton to Tel Aviv, had become a microcosm of the Middle East.

Some argued from a point of legal entitlement. They held up their boarding passes, the seat number clearly visible.

"I have a right to be here," they protested. But others simply pointed out that they had got there first. I felt I had heard this before somewhere.

Meanwhile, bolder passengers were simply shoving their luggage - and themselves - into the places they wanted. You might call it "establishing facts on the ground".

They ignored the would-be occupants towering above them, now waving boarding cards in their faces, like title-deeds to a house.

"Sit down," yelled the exasperated air stewardess, sounding like a teacher dealing with unruly children on a school bus trip. But no-one was listening to teacher that day.

Eventually, the captain's voice came over the intercom, more imploring than commanding.

"If you do not take your seats soon, we will miss our slot, and take-off could be delayed by a very long time." In other words, if the fighting continued, everyone would lose.

That kind of reasoning has never seemed to work too well in the Middle East, and it certainly did not make an impression on Flight 2085. The stand-off continued.

Tensions rose and so did voices in English, in Hebrew and in Russian. I only speak one of those languages but I am quite sure I was being treated to a crash course in their finest insults and for the first time I found myself awfully glad that metal implements are no longer permitted in carry-on luggage.

And then she appeared. The heroine of the day. I do not know her name, I guess I never will, but she seemed like Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa all rolled in to one.

A clever, sensitive stewardess came up with a compromise. "Sit down where you are for now," she said, "and we can sort out who goes where, once we are up in the air."

Brilliant. The passengers looked at her, they looked at each other, and they meekly obeyed. Those wanting a window seat accepted an aisle; couples hoping to travel together agreed to be rent asunder.

It reminded me of the Oslo Agreement, back in the day when that seemed like a solution to the Middle East problem. Let us all calm down for a bit, live in our respective places for now, and sort out the final agreement later on in the day.

I thought of telling the stewardess she had missed her metier, that instead of serving gin and tonics to rude passengers, she should be working for the United Nations - she certainly could not have made a worse job than others who have tried.

I drifted off into a reverie, imagining this diplomatic wonder-woman circling the globe, perhaps still wearing her Easyjet uniform - she would shuttle between North and South Korea, between the US and Iran - everywhere bringing her home-spun approach to international crises.

But I soon snapped out of my fantasy, because a while after take-off, a new problem arose.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBenjamin Netanyahu narrowly won the election this week and now faces building a coalition

A group of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews had been given space at the back of the plane to hold a prayer meeting. They bowed, and recited, but in the process they attracted more worshippers and, who knows, perhaps new worshippers converted to the faith by this stirring display of mid-air religiosity.

Eventually there were so many offering their thanks to God that they were blocking the aisle, and the non-observant passengers found they could not reach the toilet.

One unfortunate lady found herself stuck inside the lavatory, pushing on the door but meeting resistance from the mini-congregation now gathered outside.

Soon the secular bladders were causing real problems to their owners, who began to complain that the religious people were getting things all their own way.

Now that is a complaint you will hear in Israel itself where there have been furious quarrels between zealous followers of God and those of a more sceptical inclination.

But here we were nearly a thousand miles from the Holy Land and quite a few thousand feet up in the sky.

I searched in vain for Easyjet's unappreciated ambassador-of-peace - the stewardess who had brought unexpected calm to a conflict-ridden flight.

But she had gone back to serving gin and tonics - and it looked like this time, she just did not want to get involved.

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