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

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.”


Vandals damage cars in Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem

Updated 19 min 28 sec ago

Vandals damage cars in Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem

  • Masked suspects operated under the cover of darkness to vandalize the cars in east Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood
  • The graffiti included the phrases “When Jews are stabbed, we aren’t silent”

JERUSALEM: Vandals slashed the tires of over 160 vehicles and sprayed slogans such as “Arabs=enemies” in a Palestinian neighborhood of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Israeli police said Monday. Elsewhere, Palestinian residents of the volatile West Bank city of Hebron staged a general strike to protest the construction of a new Jewish settlement there.
Masked suspects operated under the cover of darkness to vandalize the cars in east Jerusalem’s Shuafat neighborhood and spray-painted Hebrew graffiti on a nearby wall, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. He said the authorities were treating the incident as criminal with “nationalistic motives.”
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion condemned the “hate crime” and called upon the police “to find the criminals as fast as possible and bring them to justice.”
The graffiti included the phrases “When Jews are stabbed, we aren’t silent,” and “There is no place in the land for enemies.”
Hard-line nationalist Israelis have been known to execute so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinians in response to Palestinian militant attacks or perceived efforts by Israeli authorities to limit settlement expansion.
It was unclear what motivated Monday’s incident.
In Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city, Palestinian shops, schools and businesses were shuttered for the one-day strike. Some youngsters hurled stones at Israeli military patrols, and soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.
Israel’s new defense minister, Naftali Bennett, presented his plan for a new settlement there early this month. Bennett, a longtime supporter of the West Bank settlement movement, said his plan will double the Jewish population of Hebron.
Hebron is frequent flashpoint of violence. Hundreds of hard-line Jewish settlers guarded by thousands of soldiers live in the heart of the city, which has a population of over 200,000 Palestinians.
Palestinian Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh said the city has formed a legal team to challenge the decision in Israeli courts.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and quickly began settling the newly conquered territory.
Over the past five decades, Israel, citing security needs, has established a military bureaucracy in the West Bank that enforces movement restrictions on Palestinians through a complex permit system. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The US announced a new American doctrine last month that does not consider Israeli settlements a violation of international law. It was the latest in a string of diplomatic gifts by the Trump administration to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.