CASABLANCA: Members of the Moroccan Jewish community buy pastries at a kosher shop in this western Moroccan port city on Friday. - AFP

CASABLANCA: Casablanca's "Madame Fhal" bakery is famed for its delicious kosher bread, but in its busy queue there was only one thing on people's lips - a deal between Morocco and Israel. "Everyone is talking about it, whether it's our Jewish clients, who make up half of our customers, or Muslims," said Kevin Fhal, the 36-year-old grandson of the founder of this baking institution. Morocco on Thursday became the fourth Arab nation this year to agree to normalize relations with Israel, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said liaison offices would be reopened in Tel Aviv and Rabat, which Morocco closed in 2000 at the start of the second Palestinian uprising, and establish full diplomatic relations "as rapidly as possible". Morocco confirmed the deal, saying King Mohammed VI had told outgoing US President Donald Trump his country had agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel "with minimal delay".

Fhal, speaking in the middle of the rush for Madame Fhal's special bread baked according to religious requirements ahead of Shabbat, Judaism's holy day of rest, said it was a moment to celebrate. "Since the normalization announced by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, we had to be on the list. Finally, it came," said Fhal, who is especially eager for direct flights to Israel to begin.

'Greatest respect'
As customers waited for their fresh bread, one lady in her 40s described how people had reacted to the news of the deal. "The entire Jewish community in Morocco was in joy," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "This is a very strong and very courageous gesture on the part of King Mohammed VI," she said, adding that the deal "will have a positive impact on Moroccans in general, not only for Jews."

But she said it also worried her. In Muslim-majority Morocco, the Jewish community - once the largest in North Africa - has dwindled from more than a quarter of a million in the 1950s down to less than 3,000 today. "I'm afraid that protests will break out, that a rift will be created between the communities, that misunderstandings will prevail," she said.

But a worker in the store smoothed over concerns. "We have had very cordial relations for a very long time," said the man in his 60s. "We have never had any problems. We work together with the greatest respect." At the Amsellem butchery, another culinary institution in central Casablanca's district with the last Jewish stores, owner Jacques Bitton said he did "not stop receiving calls from Moroccans-Jews and Muslims - all satisfied with this decision".

Bitton said he was "very happy" at the development of relations between his country and the Jewish state. "I have family in Israel, a first cousin who is in the government," said Bitton. "I spoke with him; he was ecstatic." In Israel, there are some 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin - many of whom have kept strong links with the kingdom, including celebrating its culinary and musical traditions. Most Moroccan Jews left with their families in the early 1950s, after Israel declared its independence.

'Forbidden love'
But while some Jews in Morocco look forward to visiting Israel, others are eager to make the trip in return. While Morocco has allowed in Israeli travellers for several years, the deal will now aid travel with direct flights. For Avraham Avizemer, a Jewish man born in Casablanca but now living in the Israeli coastal town of Caesarea, it was a historic announcement. "It is a great day," he said, saying Jews born in Morocco - and their children and grandchildren - can "return to the land where our ancestors lived for over 2,000 years."

Avizemer, who left Casablanca as a toddler and is now in his 70s, has visited Morocco over 400 times in recent years, importing Moroccan products to Israel, as well as organizing tourist trips and writing books on Moroccan Jews. As many as 70,000 Jews of Moroccan origin, many living in Israel, visit Morocco each year, either for tourism, or pilgrimage for religious festivals. "Relations between Morocco and Israel took place behind the scenes," said Fanny Mergui, a Moroccan Jew who was a Zionist youth leader in the 1960s. "It was a kind of forbidden love, formalized today," said Mergui, who describes herself as a Palestinian activist. - AFP