Gaza’s first and only international airport was inaugurated more than two decades ago, promising what many Palestinians believed would be something resembling normalcy in the tightly controlled enclave.
“It’s something big, something beautiful,” Abeer Jord, a 26-year-old Palestinian Airlines ground attendant, told a Washington Post reporter as the airport opened in November 1998. “Finally we have our airport, and this is the most important day in our hopes to be a state.”
It didn’t turn out that way. Though the airport still sits on the south of the strip near the border with Egypt, it has not been used since 2000. It lies now in ruins, a monument not to hope for the future but to the dashed dreams of the past.
The perils of economic development without a clear political agreement over the Palestinian territories will come into sharp focus this week, as the U.S.-backed Peace to Prosperity conference opens Tuesday in Manama, Bahrain.
The two-day event, spearheaded by Jared Kushner and the Trump administration, hopes to bring more than $50 billion in investment to the Palestinians over 10 years. With it, the Trump administration seems to be arguing that future Palestinian prosperity will come not from political aspirations, but from trade and business.
“Just as Dubai and Singapore have benefited from their strategic locations and flourished as regional financial hubs, the West Bank and Gaza can ultimately develop into a regional trading center,” a document outlining the U.S. plan states.
Among the many stark differences between Gaza and both those places is that Dubai and Singapore both have airports. Dubai International Airport opened in 1960, while Singapore has had a civilian airport since 1930.
The closest airport to Gaza is Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, about 43 miles away and essentially out of reach for most Palestinians.
Gazans may also have the option of traveling 47 miles to El Arish International Airport in Egypt’s Sinai province, but only if the Rafah Border Crossing is open. In recent years, it often has not been.
The vast majority of Gaza’s 2 million population are confined to life in the strip, which measures roughly 140 square miles (about twice the size of Washington, D.C.). Many young Gazans have never left Gaza.
Now the defunct airport illustrates a broader point: Despite decades of talks, Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, do not have control of their own borders or movements. Without this autonomy, the hopes of Gaza City becoming a Palestinian Dubai seem outlandish.
Previous peace talks have focused on the idea of providing Palestinians with a direct link to the outside world through air travel. During the Oslo peace talks of the 1990s, Israel agreed that Palestinians should be able to build an airport in Gaza, though Israel would retain control of the airport.
It was an international effort to build the facility. Funding for the $70 million airport came not only from the Palestinian Authority but also Egypt, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Moroccan architects designed the airport to resemble one in Casablanca. For the airport’s fledgling national carrier, two Fokker 50s were donated by the Dutch and one Boeing 727 by a Saudi prince.
Yet it took years of negotiations for the airport to finally open, in 1998, with President Bill Clinton pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to it when he met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a meeting in Wye Oak, Md., in October 1998.
When the airport opened the following month, it was informally dubbed Yasser Arafat International Airport and had the code GZA. President Clinton and Hillary Clinton attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Though Israel still ultimately controlled much of what went on at the airport, including monitoring passports and bags, it was still a symbolic victory. The Post report from 1998 noted that the airport would likely cut down the time of a journey from Gaza to Amman, Jordan, from 12 hours to three or four.
But the Israeli government remained concerned about the airport, suggesting to foreign reporters that it could ultimately be used to bring in weaponry or extremists. As the peace process faltered and the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out in 2000, Israel halted flights from the airport.
The following December, Israeli bulldozers tore up the runway while jets bombed the control tower after deadly suicide bombings by Palestinians in Israel. Airport workers staffed the building until 2006 before finally abandoning it.
Israel has bombed the airfield facilities repeatedly in the following years, while looters have ransacked the buildings, leaving them husks.
Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, had periodically demanded that the airport be reopened during negotiations. However, there has been little appetite from the Israeli government to revisit the concept of a Palestinian airport, while the United States, too, has balked at the idea of giving Hamas control of airport security in a post-9/11 world.
The 96-page Peace to Prosperity plan mentions neither an airport in Gaza nor the long-held Palestinian hope for a seaport in Gaza.
Its sole concession to the issues surrounding freedom of movement are confined to a “transportation network" between West Bank and Gaza — a revival of another plan that dates to the Oslo peace process but collapsed amid the Second Intifada.
The Trump administration may recognize that in the current political environment, proposing the reopening of an airport in Gaza may be a flight of fancy. But without addressing the issues of autonomy that the ruined airport represents, it’s hard to see how the plan’s broader ambitions could ever get off the ground.