The website for Yasser Arafat International Airport shows images of a glistening white, low-rise passenger terminal built in modern Islamic style with Moorish arches and a golden dome. A slogan running across the top of the site’s homepage reads: “A sign of independence.”
The phrase epitomises the optimism that accompanied the opening of the airport in 1998 – an event widely perceived as a first step towards Palestinian statehood. But continuing violence meant the airport closed in 2001, with Palestinian Airlines’ three aircraft grounded in Jordan. Apart from a handful of Palestinian Civil Aviation Authority staff, the terminal has stood empty ever since, the control tower and radar destroyed and the runway bulldozed into trenches by the Israelis.
But the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not given up hope. Following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in mid-August, it has viewed the airport as a lifeline to the outside world. UK engineering consultant Mott MacDonald has completed a damage assessment and Palestinian Deputy Transport Minister Ali Shaat estimates the airport could become fully operational only six months after rehabilitation work starts, which will cost an estimated $22.5 million.
European donors, including the Spanish and German governments, are ready to fund the repairs as soon as a political agreement between Israel and the PA is concluded. “I am optimistic. We could get an agreement by the end of the year – if things go smoothly,” says Shaat.
In addition, the EU is funding construction of a $21.8 million cargo terminal, for which Spanish consultant Typsa completed the design in mid-2005. Tender documents have been prepared and Typsa will supervise the work, for which prequalification could be launched as early as next spring – politics permitting – to build the 60,000-90,000-tonne-a-year facility. The project includes construction of the terminal building, aprons, taxiways, marshalling and landside facilities, including parking and roads. The work is expected to take a year to complete.
Typsa signed up for the project in January 2004, but the design was not completed for 18 months because of numerous delays caused by Israeli security concerns – partly related to the use of topographical survey equipment in a militarily sensitive area.
The recent upsurge in Palestinian militant rocket attacks on Israel launched from Gaza, retaliatory Israeli air strikes and claims by Tel Aviv that Palestinian militants are smuggling weapons into Gaza through tunnels dug beneath the border with Egypt, will all affect the chances of successful talks on reopening the airport. But in a positive development, largely resulting from EU and US pressure, Tel Aviv looks set to agree to a bus service linking the West Bank and Gaza. Much rests on the PA’s successful administration of the border terminal at Rafah, which reopened at the end of November. The terminal is controlled by the PA under EU observation and Israeli video surveillance. Successful co-operation at Rafah could build trust and serve as a model for the operation of the airport.
The new cargo terminal will reorient the focus of the airport away from a passenger-only gateway built to serve about 700,000 travellers a year. The export of agricultural produce is key to Gaza’s economic revival and the airport would play a crucial role presenting a viable means to transport low-weight, high-value produce, such as cut flowers from Gaza’s greenhouses, to an international market. “The economy is in bad shape. Reopening the airport will give it the kiss of life,” says Shaat.