Gaza Airport Opens Amid Hopes of Economic Takeoff


An Egyptian jet touched down a minute ahead of schedule Tuesday and officially opened the first Palestinian airport, with Yasser Arafat, a red carpet and a bagpipe band on hand to welcome the arrivals.

But the emotional significance of the airport inauguration only became clear later in the elaborate ceremony after crowds of Palestinians broke through security lines and roamed the runway in awe alongside other just-arrived jets.

For the people of the teeming Gaza Strip, many of whom had never seen a plane before except in the clouds and who will never be able to afford an airline ticket, a stifling sense of isolation was at long last being pierced.

"This is a dream they cannot believe," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a senior aide to Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president. "They've been living in a ghetto. Now, with free access, we can feel human."

The opening of the airport, which Palestinians see as a step toward statehood, was a key component in the new U.S.-brokered interim peace agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinian leadership at the White House last month.

In addition to its symbolic and morale-boosting value, Gaza International Airport is expected to inject life into the Palestinians' moribund economy, boosting exports and perhaps bringing in tourists and trade.

Palestinian officials hope that President Clinton will fly into the airport when he visits Gaza next month. And this morning, Arafat took the first official flight out of the facility, headed for France, where he is to meet President Jacques Chirac and visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Of course, the newfound freedom of movement being celebrated Tuesday is limited.

In addition to controlling its borders with Gaza, Israel retains ultimate security control over the $70-million airport; monitors who and what comes and goes; can ban any airline it deems unfriendly; and has held up full operation of the airport, even now, by holding on to the navigational equipment needed to guide landings after dark.

The ivory control tower is empty of most radar and air-traffic equipment; a portable unit on loan from Israel was used Tuesday from the back of a van.

Israeli authorities--who have prohibited their own citizens from using Gaza International--are worried that the airport will become a channel for Palestinians to traffic in weapons or smuggle terrorists into their territory. On Tuesday, a contingent of Israeli security officials, some in uniform, stood in the center of the tarmac and monitored the arriving cargoes and delegations, which included Egyptian and Moroccan Cabinet ministers and a Jordanian prince.

Putting aside the continued restrictions for the time being, Palestinians chose to celebrate Tuesday. Palestinian police officers and Cabinet ministers joined hands and did a traditional dance while crowds chanted "God is great!" and "Long live Palestine!" Arafat lauded the opening of the airport as an important step toward the formation of an independent Palestinian state, a lifelong vision of his that Israel adamantly opposes.

"Inshallah [God willing], we will land soon in the holy Jerusalem airport," he told reporters in the Gaza airport's lavish VIP lounge, under crystal chandeliers and a replica of Jerusalem's golden Dome of the Rock.

Of the seven flights that landed Tuesday, none was more enthusiastically received than a Fokker 50 belonging to Palestinian Airlines, a three-plane company finally able to operate out of what it considers its home base. As the aircraft taxied, a co-pilot opened a cockpit window and waved the red-black-and-green Palestinian flag. The entire crew deplaned waving flags.

Arafat flashed a wide smile and anointed the crew "soldiers of God."

In between plane arrivals, Gazan men in flowing white robes and women in head scarves milled about the desert airport, where patches of newly planted turf were being flooded by water from irrigation hoses punctured by kids wanting a drink.

"We've been living under Israeli occupation for so long, so how could we have seen an airplane?" said Sobhi Shurab, a 17-year-old student who was among those reveling in their first eyeballing of an aircraft on the ground.

Gaza is a 140-square-mile strip of desert wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea and crammed with about 1 million mostly poor Palestinians. Travel has usually meant begging Israeli permission or going overland to Egypt. Until Tuesday, Arafat also parked his plane in Egypt and drove into Gaza.

Palestinians said Tuesday that they are looking forward to being able to make the hajj--Islam's holiest pilgrimage, to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca--on a flight from Gaza.

Khamil Zorab, a Gaza guava and tomato farmer, was at the airport to celebrate freedom from transporting his produce to market through Israel, which he said costs him time and money. Every time Israel shut down its borders with Gaza as a security precaution, farmers like Zorab stood to lose, their crops often rotting in the fields.

Air freight "will save us lots of time and money," Zorab said. "The losses have been driving most farmers out of business over the last 10 years."

Palestinian Finance Minister Mohammed Zuhdi Nashashibi, standing under the roaring engine of a Royal Jordanian Boeing 737, optimistically forecast a minimum 10% growth in Palestinian economic production, including the export of fruits, vegetables and cut flowers, in the first year alone.

The airport is officially named Gaza International Airport, but many Palestinians insist on calling it Arafat International. Huge billboards showing him standing in front of a departing jet lined the road to the airport Tuesday, along with scores of police.

Ceremonies with Arafat are usually carefully controlled, but a group of relatives of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails pushed its way onto airport grounds and headed straight for the nearest CNN camera.

Waving black flags and the pictures of their loved ones, the mothers and brothers chanted for the release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel last week freed 250 of an agreed upon 750. But the Palestinians want more of their fighters released, and Israel refuses, considering them a risk.

The protest grew in intensity until security guards moved in.

For all the jubilation, the Palestinian Authority gave numerous signs that it is not yet ready to run an airport.

Reporters who had been escorted to the airport were forced to wait more than an hour to enter the grounds when authority officials ran out of press badges. Arafat's security detail blocked the reporters and manhandled several of them, relenting only when Arafat's press officials stepped in between security guards and reporters.

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