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Last Updated: Friday, 15 April, 2005, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Years of delays at Gaza airport
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Gaza airport runway
Israeli bulldozers tore up the runway at Gaza airport in 2001.

It is everything you might expect of a modern Middle Eastern airport. The architecture is in the Arab style - slim pillars rise to a string of high arches along the front.

The sign on the roof declares proudly, Gaza International - and the smartly-kept terminal and the control tower look the part.

But this is the airport that the world forgot. Planes don't come anymore.

Inside everything remains as it always was.

The marble floors of the large, cool terminal hall are kept well polished. Along one wall the check-in counters stand ready for business, and above them hang the passenger information screens.

The staff wanted to show that they have kept everything in working order. And for a moment they brought Gaza's ghost airport back to life.


Muzak began echoing through the empty hallways, and the screens filled with numbers and instructions: "Flight 272 to Casablanca - on time. Palestinian Airlines flight 141 to Cairo - boarding."

Gaza airport
Things were very different when the airport opened in 1998.
But in reality, nobody has boarded at Gaza International for more than four years. The airport shut soon after the Palestinian uprising broke out.

The Israelis bombed the radar station and sent in bulldozers to tear up the runway.

On a much, much better day, back in 1998, President Clinton flew in to be the guest of honour at the official opening.

He inaugurated what was the only Palestinian-controlled air link with the outside world. But it was more than that. For Palestinians it was a symbol of the state they plan to build if the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza ends.


"For sure the airport is one of the symbols of state sovereignty," said Usama Saidam, who works at the airport. "You know that our borders are controlled by the Israelis - but the airport was a special case. It made travelling easier.

"The place was as busy as a beehive. It ran 24 hours a day, with planes landing and taking off every few minutes. And they were full. And we exported cut flowers from Gaza - and fruits, like strawberries."

Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton
Former US President Bill Clinton attended Gaza airport's opening ceremony.

Mr Saidam is one of well over 450 people who are still employed at what was recently re-named Yasser Arafat International Airport.

And you can find air traffic controllers, security men and even baggage handlers on duty.

Some maintenance work goes on, and there are papers to shuffle. But the staff concede that, of course, with no passengers there is very, very little to do.

It might be argued that keeping hundreds on the payroll for years at an airport with no planes is economic lunacy.

But the Palestinians say they see it as a political statement - a refusal to shut up shop under Israeli pressure.

"The employee respects his job at any time," says Mr Saidam. "Whether there is work or not we're paid to attend. We hope every day that there might be a political development. The employees are living on hope."


And certainly there is a little more cause for hope now.

In the aftermath of Yasser Arafat's death Israeli-Palestinian relations have improved. Much of the violence has ebbed away.

There are efforts to regenerate the peace process, and the Israelis say they plan to evacuate their troops and settlers from Gaza in the summer.

The Palestinian leadership says it is time to re-open the airport.

But Israel says no. Gaza is home to militant groups like Hamas that have struck at Israeli soldiers and civilians many times. Israel worries that its enemies might use the airport to smuggle in weapons.

The Palestinian security forces are widely regarded as being riddled with members who are sympathetic to - or even active in - militant groups.

The Israelis say they don't believe that they would run the airport securely.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, said that when Gaza International operated before the Intifada there was elaborate security co-ordination and comparatively high levels of trust between the two sides.

"Why is the airport not on the agenda at the moment - well I think it's fundamentally because there isn't that level of confidence yet," said Mr Regev. "Hopefully we'll get there soon."

The Palestinians, however, believe that the continuing closure of the airport is part of a wider Israeli effort to restrict and constrain them in economic and other ways.

It may still be a long time before the planes come back to Yasser Arafat International.

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