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.”


Palestinians to cut civil servant salaries after Israeli tax freeze

Updated 21 February 2019
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Palestinians to cut civil servant salaries after Israeli tax freeze

  • Israel's security cabinet on Sunday approved the freezing of $138 million (122 million euros) over the PA's payments to the families of prisoners, or prisoners themselves, jailed for attacks on Israelis
  • Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Wednesday he would not accept anything but full payment of the tax transfers owed by Israel

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian finance minister on Thursday announced salary cuts for civil servants, days after Israel said it would withhold tens of millions of dollars in tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel's security cabinet on Sunday approved the freezing of $138 million (122 million euros) over the PA's payments to the families of prisoners, or prisoners themselves, jailed for attacks on Israelis.
Israel, which collects taxes on behalf of the PA, says the payments encourage further violence.
The PA claims they are a form of welfare to families who have lost their main breadwinner.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Wednesday he would not accept anything but full payment of the tax transfers owed by Israel.
The PA, which is already running a deficit, will "pay the salaries of civil servants in time, but they will be reduced", said PA finance minister Shukri Bishara after a meeting with EU representatives in Ramallah.
The cuts will not apply to salaries "paid to pensioners and families of martyrs, wounded or prisoners", he added, adding that wages below 2,000 shekels ($550) would also not be affected.
Many Palestinians view prisoners and those killed while carrying out attacks as heroes in their conflict with Israel. Palestinian leaders often venerate them as martyrs.
Under a 1994 agreement, Israel collects around $190 million each month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports.
The money it then transfers to the PA is the authority's most important source of revenue.
The Palestinians want EU countries to pressure the Israeli government to rescind its decision, said Mahmoud al-Aloul, deputy of Abbas's Fatah party.
Palestinian leaders will take steps to "boycott Israeli goods", he said, adding they had already prepared "a list of Israeli products that have local (Palestinian) equivalents".