Gaza's Shattered Airport, Once A Symbol Of Sovereignty
It's hard to imagine a more compelling monument to the rise and fall of the Palestinian dream of statehood than the bombed-out ruins that the 1.8 million people of Gaza call their international airport.
Sand, scrub and trash have swallowed up the land where a 3,300-yard runway was once used by planes from around the Middle East, and where former President Bill Clinton once, memorably, arrived by helicopter. The golden dome that crowned the VIP terminal is still there — though a missile has punched a hole in it, and shelling by Israel has helped reduce the building below it to a skeleton of white concrete on a carpet of rubble.
Yet this depressing spectacle doesn't deter Palestinians from hoping that Gaza — an overcrowded, enclosed, 25-mile-long strip of land, sandwiched between Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea — will once again have an airport of its own.
Indirect talks are slated to begin in Cairo in September. Israel and the Palestinians are expected to discuss terms for ending the recent, devastating, 50-day war, following last week's indefinite ceasefire.
A new airport for Gaza is high on the list of demands leveled by Hamas, which controls Gaza and whose military wing led the recent war, firing more than 4,500 rockets into Israel. The Palestinians also want a seaport.
These are major sticking points: Israel fears these ports will be used for smuggling weapons. The government regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and wants it to disarm.
Nearly 16 years have elapsed since Clinton flew into Gaza to meet the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and, amid much fanfare, to open a gleaming new airport by cutting a red ribbon.
Back then, the international community believed the Palestinians and Israelis were inching warily along a path towards peace and the creation of two states, laid out in the 1993 Oslo Accords. The road was proving bumpy, but Clinton's words on that day — Dec. 14, 1998 — reflect an era when hope was, at least, still alive.
The airport would bring "a future in which Palestinians can travel directly to the far corners of the world," Clinton said.
The airport was a step, Clinton went on, toward "a future in which it is easier and cheaper to bring materials, technology and expertise in and out of Gaza; a future in which tourists and traders can flock here, to this beautiful place on the Mediterranean; a future, in short, in which the Palestinian people are connected to the world."
Although this vision never became reality, Clinton's visit is still regarded as a milestone by Palestinians.
"It was quite a day," says Salman Abu Halib, then director-general of Gaza airport. "We will all remember it forever. The Palestinian people felt they'd secured one of the symbols of sovereignty, and this was being witnessed by the president of the United States."
Abu Halib remembers crying with happiness. "This was the very first airport in the history of the Palestinian people," he says. "Now we had an airport and our own planes."
Gaza airport was home to Palestinian Airlines and its fleet of three planes — two Dutch-made Fokker 50s and a Boeing 727 given by a Saudi prince. These flew around the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Fathi Sabbah, a Palestinian journalist for Al Hayat newspaper, was on the airline's first flight — a Fokker 50, from Gaza to Cyprus. He relished the symbolism of the occasion, but not the 45-minute flight.
"I was frightened," Sabbah says. "I was with a friend. The aircraft looked old. We were scared we'd crash in the sea and the sharks would eat us."
Israel first bombed Gaza airport in 2001, in answer to Palestinian militant attacks on Israelis in the West Bank. The second Palestinian Intifada had erupted a few months earlier. Israel's F-16s later repeatedly rocketed the runway and knocked down the tower. Palestinian Airlines shifted operations to Egypt and Jordan; the airport never reopened.
When Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza after 2007, the price of construction materials within the impoverished strip soared. Some Gazans broke up the runway with hammers and drills, to collect rubble to sell for recycling. It's now buried beneath a sea of sand.
If the two sides seriously tackle the Gaza airport issue during the upcoming talks — and that is not assured — security issues will be contentious.
During the old airport's brief life, passengers and baggage were monitored by Israeli security staff as they passed in and out. Sabbah recalls going to Gaza's southern border with Egypt to have his passport checked by Israeli officials, and then being taken by bus to the airport nearby.
Palestinians now have only two ways to leave Gaza: They can cross the southern border, now controlled by Egypt, or travel via Israel. Both options involve a great deal of time and red tape; only a limited number get permission.
Palestinians hope a new airport will change that, though the odds seem long. Gaza-based political analyst Mokhaimar Abu Saada does not completely rule out an agreement with Israel, but expects it will require the involvement of Egypt and the international community — and multiple security guarantees.
Ibrahim Adwan is more skeptical. The 14-year-old spends his out-of-school hours making a few dollars by collecting metal at the ruined airport, and taking it by donkey and cart to sell at the scrap market. At present, there are fresh pickings, as the airport was shelled in the recent war.
He has never seen an airplane fly out of Gaza, and does not believe he will anytime soon.
"People abroad have a life, but here it is meaningless," he says. "After one or two months, there will just be a war again."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and Gaza is nearly five days old and so far still intact. Now comes the really hard part. Next month should see both sides enter indirect talks brokered by Egypt to tackle some big issues. The agenda includes the Palestinians' demand for an international airport in Gaza. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Gaza City, they used to have one.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: All that's left of Gaza International Airport today is what I'm looking at, which is four or five big, but ruined buildings, lots of bomb damage, shrapnel damage, and scrub growing in the sand and bits of trash that have been tossed here.
It wasn't always like this here. Let's switch back the clock some 16 years to the 14 of December, 1998. President Bill Clinton is in Gaza meeting the then-leader of the Palestinians, Yasser Arafat. Clinton's just taken part in a big ceremony.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BILL CLINTON: Today, I had the privilege of cutting the ribbon on the International Airport.
CLINTON: Hillary and I, along with Chairman and Mrs. Arafat celebrated a place that will become a magnet for planes from throughout the Middle East and beyond.
REEVES: The opening that day of Gaza's International Airport was a huge occasion. The peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis was painfully slow. But back then, it did seem to be going somewhere. The airport was to be a big step towards a brighter future.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CLINTON: A future in which Palestinians can travel directly to the far corners of the world. A future in which it is easier and cheaper to bring materials, technology and expertise in and out of Gaza.
SALMAN ABU HALIB: (Through translator). It was quite a day. We'll all remember it forever. The Palestinian people felt they'd secured one of the symbols sovereignty. And this was being witnessed by the President of the United States.
REEVES: Salman Abu Halib was director general of Gaza's airport at the time. He remembers being in tears that day.
HALIB: (Through translator). Great happiness, great happiness. This was the very first airport in the history of the Palestinian people. Now we had an airport and our own planes.
REEVES: The planes he's talking about were from Palestinian Airlines. The airline had three - two Dutch-made Fokker-50s, plus a Boeing 727 gifted by a Saudi prince.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
REEVES: The Palestinians dancing with joy at the opening of Gaza Airport had greater ambitions. The airport's design made that clear. It had a big, VIP terminal crowned with a golden dome. The passenger hall had archways, huge glass windows, crystal chandeliers and mosaics of brightly colored tiles. That's all gone.
So I'm entering what was the passenger terminal. What's striking about it is that it is huge. I mean, you could fit 10 tennis courts in here easily. But it is a total wreck. There are huge chunks of concrete lying all over the place. The floor is just a carpet of rubble. Their roof is gone completely.
Israel first bombed Gaza Airport in 2001 in answer to Palestinian militant attacks on Israelis in the West Bank. The second Palestinian intifada had erupted a few months earlier. Israel's F-16s later rocketed the runway again and knocked down the tower. Palestinian Airline's shifted operations to Egypt and Jordan and still operate a few flights today. There were no flights from Gaza ever again says Abu Halib.
HALIB: Nothing. No.
REEVES: Much of the runway remained intact for years, enough for 7,000 kids to gather back in 2010 and win a place in the Guinness Book of Records by bouncing basketballs. Then some Palestinians came along and broke up the runway with hammers and drills. The price of building materials has soared because of Israel's blockade of Gaza. People needed the rubble to sell. Even now, the wreckage of Gaza's airport still yields up a few dollars. It was shelled during the recent fighting. Some kids are here with a donkey and cart collecting fresh scrap.
The nearly 2 million inhabitants of Gaza have only two ways of getting out. They can cross the southern border controlled by Egypt, or they can travel via Israel. Both options involve much time and red tape, and only a limited number get permission. When it worked, Gaza Airport made everything much easier.
With the war over, thousands are clearing some of the devastation caused by Israeli air strikes and artillery fire. Everyone knows getting Israel to agree to an airport will be difficult. Hamas is in charge of Gaza. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization and wants it to disarmed. Israel's right wing will pounce on any concession that seems to reward Hamas for rocket fire. Israel is also worried an airport, and the seaport that the Palestinians also want, would be used to smuggle in weapons. Yet, Palestinian political analyst Mokhaimar Abu Saada thinks an agreement on the airport is not completely impossible.
MOKHAIMAR ABU SAADA: We feel that with the intervention of Egypt, the intervention of the international community, we might be able to get and Israeli approval. But in return, Israel will have to get 100 percent guarantees that it's security will not be threatened by the construction of a Palestinian airport.
REEVES: At the ruins of Gaza Airport, as he scavenges for scrap, Ibrahim Adwan skeptical. He's 14. He's never seen planes flying out of here. He doesn't think he will anytime soon. In fact, he's expecting the worst.
IBRAHIM ADWAN: (Through translator). People abroad have a life. But here, it's meaningless. After one or two months, there will just be a war again.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.