Tuesday, November 24, 1998 Published at 12:06 GMT
World: Middle East
Palestinians celebrate new airport
Palestinians welcome the first flights
Yasser Arafat has opened the first Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip.
"This is a preparation for the declaration of the Palestinian state," said Mr Arafat, smiling broadly as he welcomed the first flights.
It touched down to the cheers of dozens of dignitaries waiting on the ground.
Greeting the crew from the first Palestinian plane to arrive, Mr Arafat said: "You are a beautiful sight."
He said the successful opening of the airport was tangible proof that the Middle East peace process was working, thanks to the recent Israeli-Palestinian agreement at Wye River.
Symbol of sovereignty
"This is really a window for the Palestinian people to the outside world. This is a symbol of our sovereignty and an open economy," he said.
The $250m airport has been ready for a year, but an agreement allowing it to open was not signed until last week.
For Palestinians living in the small, overcrowded Gaza Strip, which is ringed by the Mediterranean on one side and by barbed wire on the other three, it is seen as a gateway to the outside world.
In the past, Palestinians wanting to fly abroad needed permission to enter Israel and fly out of the international airport near Tel Aviv.
Israel rarely granted permission and forced Palestinians to use Israeli-controlled land routes to Egypt or Jordan to catch flights.
But the independence the airport gives Palestine is heavily qualified.
Aircraft from countries still formally at war with Israel - such as Syria - will not be allowed to land.
However, the airport is still being seen as a commercial lifeline.
Airport officials say they expect to handle up to 700,000 passengers a year and welcome aircraft as large as a jumbo jet.
Mr Arafat plans to fly from the airport for the first time on Wednesday when he visits Egypt.