Destroyed Gaza airport symbolizes grounded peace hopes

25 years after the first of those historic agreements was signed on September 13, 1993, the airport in Gaza lies in tatters, along with Palestinian hopes for an independent state. (AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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Destroyed Gaza airport symbolizes grounded peace hopes

  • When the airport opened in late 1998 it was one of the most tangible symbols of the Oslo accords
  • The airport was opened despite the assassination of the most senior Israeli signatory to Oslo, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish radical opposed to the agreements

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: The opening of the Palestinians’ first airport, in the presence of US president Bill Clinton, was a symbol of the hopes for independence and peace kindled by the Oslo accords.
But 25 years after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the first of the historic agreements on September 13, 1993, the airport in Gaza lies in tatters, along with Palestinian hopes for an independent state.
Today the concrete arrival halls remain in place, but much of the rest of the site is covered in piles of rubbish and rubble — the remnants of years of war and neglect.
The runway, 60 meters (65 yards) wide, is scattered with refuse, dragged in by donkey cart from nearby refugee camps.
Daifallah Al-Akhras, the chief engineer of the airport, admitted he wept on a recent visit to the terminal.
“We built the airport to be the first symbol of sovereignty,” he said. “Now you don’t see anything but destruction and ruin.”
When the airport opened in late 1998 it was one of the most tangible symbols of the Oslo accords.
Many saw the deals as paving the way to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but their five-year transitional period expired without a resolution to the conflict.
The airport was opened despite the assassination of the most senior Israeli signatory to Oslo, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, by a Jewish radical opposed to the agreements.
By 1998 the accords were fraying, but Clinton, along with his wife Hillary, still attended the ceremony to inaugurate the Yasser Arafat International Airport.
Built with funding from countries across the globe, it hosted the newly formed Palestinian Airlines and was able to handle hundreds of thousands of passengers a year, with many airlines opening up routes there.
Officials said the airline had one Boeing 727, which could accommodate 145 passengers, and two smaller planes.
Israeli security forces had a limited presence to monitor passports and bags.
Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath, who was there during Clinton’s visit, said that for all involved, the airport and plans for a larger harbor in Gaza were major landmarks.
“The airport and the harbor were not only signs of sovereignty, they were signs of freedom,” he told AFP.
“They were to free us from Israel’s total control of everything that comes into Palestine, and everything that comes from Palestine. That’s why to us they were very, very important.”
The planned expansion of the harbor never happened.
Just two years after Clinton’s visit, with the Oslo process seemingly collapsed, the second Palestinian intifada broke out. The uprising was to last five bloody years.
In 2001 Israeli warplanes bombed a runway and badly damaged several of the buildings.
Seven years later, after Islamists Hamas took control of Gaza, the site was further devastated by bombing.
No planes have taken off or landed for nearly 20 years, and thieves have stripped the site of valuable equipment including radars.
The site has seen further tension in recent months, with major protests against Israel’s blockade sparking clashes along the border just a few hundred meters away.
At least 176 Palestinians in Gaza and one Israeli have been killed since the protests and clashes erupted on March 30.
When AFP visited recently, a number of young men with hand tools were picking away at the walls of the main arrival hall.
Young men and children sifted through the rubble looking for valuable stones or iron bars to sell.
On the outskirts of the site, Bedouin women grazed sheep.
Zuhair Zomlot, coordinator of the Civil Aviation Authority in Gaza, joined AFP on the tour.
“The airport used to be packed with thousands of travelers and we received presidents and world leaders,” he said, pointing to parts of the site in various stages of decay.
“Now it’s turned into a ruin, a waste dump. It’s a tragedy.”


Could foreign Daesh suspects be tried in northeast Syria?

Updated 54 min 12 sec ago
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Could foreign Daesh suspects be tried in northeast Syria?

  • The Kurdish authorities say they are seriously exploring how to set up an international tribunal

QAMISHLI: Months after the territorial defeat of Daesh, Syria’s Kurds are pushing for an international tribunal to try alleged militants detained in their region.

The Kurds run an autonomous administration in the northeast of Syria, but it is not recognized by Damascus or the international community.

This brings complications for the legal footing of any justice mechanism on the Kurds’ territory, and the international cooperation required to establish one.

With Western nations largely reluctant to repatriate their nationals or judge them at home, could foreign Daesh suspects be put on trial in northeast Syria?

After years of fighting Daesh, Syria’s Kurds hold around 1,000 foreign men in jail, as well as some 12,000 non-Syrian women and children in overcrowded camps.

Almost four months after Kurdish-led forces backed by the US-led coalition seized Daesh’s last scrap of land in eastern Syria, few have been repatriated.

The Kurdish authorities say they are seriously exploring how to set up an international tribunal, and invited foreign experts to discuss the idea at a conference it hosted early this month.

“We will work to set up this tribunal here,” the region’s top foreign affairs official Abdelkarim Omar told AFP afterwards.

“The topic of discussion now is how we will set up this tribunal and what form it will take,” he said.

Daesh in 2014 declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, implementing its brutal rule on millions in an area the size of the UK.

The militants stand accused of a string of crimes including mass killings and rape, and a UN probe is investigating alleged war crimes.

Mahmoud Patel, a South African international law expert invited to the July conference, said any court should include input from victims and survivors.

It should be “established in the region where the offenses happened so that the people themselves can be part of that process,” he said, preferably in northeast Syria because the Kurds do not have the death penalty.

In Iraq, hundreds of people including foreigners have been condemned to death or life in prison.

In recent months, a Baghdad court has handed death sentences to 11 Frenchmen transferred from Syria to Iraq in speedy trials denounced by human rights groups.

Omar, the foreign affairs official, said he hoped for an international tribunal to try suspects “according to local laws after developing them to agree with international law.”

The Kurdish region has judges and courts, including one already trying Syrian Daesh suspects, but needs logistical and legal assistance, he said.

A tribunal would have “local judges and foreign judges, as well as international lawyers” to defend the accused, he said.

Nabil Boudi, a French lawyer representing four Frenchmen and several families held in Syria, said the Kurdish authorities seemed determined.

“They’re already starting to collect evidence,” he said after attending the conference.

“All the people who were detained and jailed had their own phone” and data can be retrieved from them, said the lawyer, who was however unable to see those he represents.

Boudi called for “a serious investigation by an independent examining magistrate ... that should take time and be far less expeditious than in Baghdad.”

Stephen Rapp, prosecutor in the trial of Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor, said the most realistic option to try foreigners in northeast Syria would be a Kurdish court.

It could have “international assistance conditioned on compliance with international law,” he said, including advice from a non-governmental organization specialized in working with non-state actors.