Dashed dreams: How Gaza’s short-lived airport never took off

Once a major symbol of Palestinian national aspirations, the Gaza International Airport sits in ruins today

In November 1998, residents of the crowded Gaza Strip had a reason to be hopeful. They were getting their first airport, and better access to the world outside their narrow confines.

Located in the south near the Egyptian border, the Yasser Arafat International Airport had been years – and millions of dollars in foreign grants – in the making. Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Germany and other European Union countries all contributed, with Moroccan architects designing the buildings' mosaic walls.

A Palestinian man gives the
Palestinian celebrate at the opening of the Gaza International airport on Nov. 24, 1998.
Adel Hana/AP

Completed a year earlier, it took a peace deal brokered at the White House for the airport to finally open. And when it did, Gazans, many of whom had never seen a plane up close, were euphoric, gathering at its gates in the thousands to watch the first Palestinian Airlines flight land.

"It may look like a little airport to you, but to us, it's bigger than John F. Kennedy,'' Nabil Shurafa, a travel agent in Gaza City told The New York Times then.

"I hope God gives me this gift, to go up in the sky like a bird, on Palestinian wings," Mafa Barbakh, an elderly woman told the paper. "Hey, we have Palestinian passports now. I can travel with my Palestinian passport on a Palestinian plane. This is Palestine!"

Beyond seeing it as a step toward statehood, Palestinians pinned their hopes on the airport becoming a critical economic lifeline: increasing exports, bringing in trade and, perhaps, even tourists.

In a historic December 1998 trip, President Bill Clinton cut the ribbon at a ceremony for the Gaza's International Airport alongside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
In a historic December 1998 trip, President Bill Clinton cut the ribbon at a ceremony for the Gaza's International Airport alongside Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Stephen Jaffe/Getty

For a while, the mood remained hopeful.

President Bill Clinton visited the airport less than a month after it opened for a ribbon-cutting ceremony alongside first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Palestinians viewed the historic visit as a potent symbolic nod to their hopes for independence. 

But within three years, the Gaza International Airport would close down, like many things in the Strip, a casualty of its deep-seated and bitter conflict with Israel.

Today, sheep graze in areas where planes once landed. Its VIP lounge, once topped with a golden dome crafted by Moroccan architects, is a gaping open-air patio. And bombed-out debris lines the stripped-out runway that cost a reported $60 million to build.

The airport was the child of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which gave Palestinians the right to build it in Gaza, but awarded Israel full control of the airspace.

From the beginning, Israel was concerned about the airport's security, specifically that it would be used to smuggle weapons or fighters into the strip.

A Palestinian Airlines flight bound for Cairo lifted off from Gaza International Airport.
A Palestinian Airlines flight bound for Cairo lifted off from Gaza International Airport.
David Guttenfelder/AP

Israel controlled routes and schedules, and prevented flights from landing at night by keeping the navigational equipment necessary to guide those planes. Passengers, luggage and aircrafts were subject to Israeli security checks.

None of it stopped tens of thousands of passengers who flew the nascent Palestinian Airlines to destinations across the Middle East, including Amman, Jeddah, Dubai, Cairo, Doha and Istanbul. Plans to extend flights to Athens, Rome and Frankfurt were also in the works. But as the prospects for a peace deal deteriorated, so did Israel's tolerance of the fledgling airport.

After the second Palestinian Intifada uprising broke out in September 2000, Israel shut down the airport. And in the tumultuous violence in the region over the next two years, it went even further.

The destroyed runway of the Gaza International Airport as seen Jan. 11, 2002, after being torn up by Israeli units earlier in the day in reprisal for a deadly assault on Israeli soldiers.
The destroyed runway of the Gaza International Airport as seen Jan. 11, 2002, after being torn up by Israeli units earlier in the day in reprisal for a deadly assault on Israeli soldiers.
Hatem Musah/AP

In December 2001, Israeli armored bulldozers demolished the nearly 2.2 mile runway into more than a dozen pieces, in response to an attack that killed four Israeli soldiers. Israeli F16 jets bombed the airport's radar center and exterior camera security system.

For years, Palestinian leadership continued to push for the airport's re-opening, emphasizing economic loss from its closure. But Israeli officials cited security concerns, and argued that the airport only benefitted high-flying diplomats and VIPs, offering no contribution to the larger Palestinian economy.

Today, those Gazans who can afford it travel through checkpoints and border crossings, sometimes for days, to get to airports in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Amid ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s dream of its own  international airport is sinking even further away.

On July 7, images showed black smoke rising from near the ruins of the Gaza airport. Medics said they recovered the bodies of five Palestinian fighters from a collapsed tunnel nearby.

An Israel airstrike on Gaza International Airport in Rafah in southern Gaza, on July 7, 2014. Medics said Israeli strikes killed eight Palestinian militants.
Said Khatib/AFP/Getty

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