RAMALLAH: Israel is considering allowing 2 million residents of the Gaza Strip to use Ramon Airport in the Negev desert, which is due to be officially opened to Palestinians from the West Bank from Saturday.
Israeli sources told Arab News that the US pressured Israel during the last Sharm El-Sheikh summit on March 19 to permit Palestinians to use the airport, located near the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.
Twice-weekly flights from the airport on Mondays and Thursdays will operate to destinations in Turkiye and will be limited to West Bank families. Men above 40 who hold a Palestinian passport will be allowed to pass through the airport.
If agreed, it will be a significant boon for Gazans who currently have to cross the Rafah land border and drive four hours through the Sinai desert to Cairo airport, their only connection with the outside world.
An official request has been submitted to Shin Bet to enable Gazans to pass through Ramon, and a senior Israeli source who asked not to be named told Arab News that the security agency is almost certain to agree.
Israel bombed and destroyed Gaza International Airport in December 2001.
A Palestinian politician from Gaza, who declined to be named, told Arab News that residents “need any solution” to the travel problem.
“According to the Oslo agreement, Palestinians should be able to travel through any Israeli airport and crossing they wish,” he said.
Jamal Zaqout, a political analyst from Gaza, told Arab News that “the time has come to lift the blockade completely on the Gaza Strip, and to establish a single authority that defends the interests of its residents in their movement through crossings and airports, their livelihood, and the rest of their lives.”
Israel opened Ramon Airport to Palestinian travelers from the West Bank in August last year, but backtracked following pressure from Jordan shortly before the Israeli elections three months later.
Officials described the two flights taking West Bank Palestinians to Istanbul and Antalya as “historic, unprecedented and a dream come true.”
Jordan opposed Ramon’s operation because it feared Palestinians from the West Bank would stop using Queen Alia International Airport, near Amman, resulting in a substantial financial loss.
According to Palestinian sources, Turkiye’s Pegasus Airlines suspended flights from Ramon after being told by Jordanian authorities that its fleet would not be welcome in Jordan if it continued to operate flights from the airport.
Other airlines are believed to have been invited to fill the vacuum left by Pegasus’ departure.
At the last Sharm El-Sheikh summit, the US called for travel facilities, including Ramon Airport and the Allenby bridge crossing spanning the Jordan River, to be made available to Palestinians from April.
Jordanian authorities collect up to $14 million annually from Palestinians entering the country and stand to lose a substantial portion of that money if large numbers begin to use Ramon Airport.
Jordan earlier said the airport’s establishment violated its airspace and international law. In 2019, Jordan submitted an official complaint to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Israel opened the airport, which is 340 km from Jerusalem and the second largest in the country after Ben Gurion, in 2019 at a cost of $500 million.
With no airport in the West Bank, Queen Alia airport in Jordan remains the main gateway to the world for Palestinians, including President Mahmoud Abbas.
However, the Palestinian Authority has rejected the idea of Palestinians traveling through Ramon Airport, saying it is a sovereign matter and that no consultations have taken place.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Israel allowed dozens of residents from the Gaza Strip to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan — a first since 2016 when the program was suspended.
Worshippers traveled by bus via the Erez crossing to Jerusalem and returned to Gaza later in the day.