Gaza International Airport (code GZA) -- often jokingly referred to as "Yasser Arafat International", but Abu Amar has not yet seen it fit to join the ranks of fellow Middle Eastern dignitaries King Saud, Sultan Qaboos and Saddam Hussein (among others) by naming an airport after himself -- is a microcosm of the dashed aspirations of Palestine.

Facts and Figures

Located in Dahaniya, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip near the Rafah border crossing between Israel and Egypt, the airport was opened to great fanfare in November 1998. The airport is a modern little facility with a small but impeccable terminal building and a single runway, all built with extensive aid from the European Union. In its brief heyday, flights operated to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Spain, but Israel went out of its way to cripple the newly-born airport and eventually shut it down entirely.

The Story

Since I gather that the number of Westerners who managed to use the airport can be counted on my fingers, at the risk of GTKY I suppose I'd better record my own experience (in April 2000) for posterity.

The flight from Cairo was first delayed for two hours, since in the mornings a fog often settles on the airport (which is near the sea), and while the Palestinian Authority has bought, paid for and shipped equipment that would allow landings in inclement weather, in the name of security Israeli Customs have impounded the gear for 3 years and counting. Once we finally took off, the EgyptAir flight itself passed uneventfully, taking all of 40 minutes aboard a Boeing 737 with seven (7) passengers.

We landed at Gaza airport, and waited. Nothing happened for half an hour or so. Eventually we descended to the tarmac, and waited some more. A little bus showed up, we climbed in, and after another half hour the bus started moving. The bus trundled along the heavily guarded border, stopping every now and then at checkpoints and remote-controlled gates. I counted six parallel electric and/or barbed wire fences, the land underneath undoubtedly heavily mined, and naturally lots of watchtowers to watch over it all. There is more of the same a few kilometers away on the Egyptian side of the border.

At Rafah, the luggage from the plane was plonked onto a conveyor belt that disappeared into a building. We were ordered to strip off all metallic objects, including belts, and pass through a hypersensitive metal detector while our carry-on baggage was searched. Next we went through Israeli immigration -- an almost painless process for me, considerably less so for the locals -- and then waited. An hour or so later, the luggage appeared, at the other end of the belt, all bags and suitcases opened and presumably carefully examined, all out of sight. (Lose any valuables? Just try proving it.)

One more hour of thumb-twiddling later, we picked up our baggage, reboarded the bus and returned to the terminal. At the terminal there was a cursory Palestinian passport check and then I finally emerged into the harsh daylight of the Mediterranean. The 40-minute flight had taken me over 7 hours, and I didn't even get a single stamp in my passport as a souvenir. (I did, however, get an entry stamp from the Israeli border at Erez, which furnished obvious proof of having been to Gaza and resulted in a rather detailed interrogation upon departure from Israel...)

The Justification

So why does Israel do this? A part of the reason is simply that it can. Another part is that Israel wants to rub in the fact that Palestine is not sovereign and that Palestinians remain subject to Israeli whim. And the excuse always offered, the justification for any deed, is bitachon, security.

On my way out of the airport, I ran into a little group of schoolchildren out on a school trip. They weren't going anywhere, mind you; they were visiting the airport itself, because it's about the most exciting thing there is in Gaza. More likely than not, none of those kids have ever left the 40-by-6 kilometer Strip, and most of them will never get the permits to do so. They will spend the rest of their lives trapped in their rabbit pen of unemployment, desperation and brutality, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.

The Present

Even at best, flight schedules from Dahaniya were erratic, as Israeli fighters turned around incoming and departing jets on random pretexts (the fate of the next Cairo-Gaza flight after mine, among others). Due to the intentionally stretched-out border control measures, flights via Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport were far faster and flying to Gaza was a losing proposition both for airline and passenger. (There is also a commercial angle here, as every flight to Dahaniya means more revenue to the PA and less revenue for Israel's flight authorities. In fact, before Oslo, it was government policy enshrined in legislation to forbid any Gazan businesses that could compete with Israeli companies -- one reason for the 60% unemployment rate.)

In case you're wondering why I chose Gaza, I needed to return to Tel Aviv a few days early but the direct flights were full, so blissfully unaware of the complications I decided to take a little detour...

Soon after the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, the airport was forced to shut down entirely as a means of collective punishment. In November 2001, after a terrorist attack in Haifa, Israeli troops entered the airport, bulldozed the control tower and blew up the runway. The airport is thus not operational and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

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