Gaza Airborne Again?

A recent United Nations report warned that the Gaza Strip might become “uninhabitable” by 2020 for its 1.8 million residents.[1] Serious changes must be implemented as soon as possible to reverse the coastal enclave’s de-development. Additionally, the World Bank warned in May of this year that Gaza’s economy is on the verge of collapse and that youth unemployment is the highest in the region at 60%.[2] After years of war, destruction and poverty, an airport for functional purposes could help accelerate Gaza’s reconstruction and re-development process. It would also relieve Gazans’ chronic inability to travel in and out of the Strip in an effective and safe manner.

Currently, access to the Strip is severely restricted via three crossings: Erez and Kerem Shalom with Israel for passengers and goods respectively; and Rafah with Egypt for passengers. People desperately needing to get in and out of the coastal enclave have largely been unable to use the Erez and Rafah crossings due to security-centered restrictions and the politicized nature of their operations. The Kerem Shalom crossing has barely kept up with Gaza’s large demand for critical and consumer goods as well as materials for infrastructure development. Gaza’s International Airport sits in ruins while negotiations for establishing a seaport as part of the Oslo Accords were never completed. (Recently, some ideas were being explored regarding a floating seaport or a naval corridor connecting Gaza with Cyprus.)

Precedents for an airport in Gaza

The British Royal Air Force established an airport in the northeastern part of the Strip during the mandate period and used it to support allied operations during WWII. Then between 1957 and 1967, the UN operated the airport as part of the United Nations Emergency Force, established to supervise the "disentanglement" of the armies of Egypt, Britain, France, and Israel in the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.[3] The airstrip served both the Emergency Force and Gaza's inhabitants. When the use of the airport was expanded from military to civilian purposes, UN planes provided transportation services and carried passengers and humanitarian/commercial cargo to and from the Strip.

Gaza's first and only Palestinian-controlled international airport in the southeastern-most part of the Strip became operational in November 1998 after negotiations between Israel and the then newly-established Palestinian Authority (PA). Despite the professionalism of crews who staffed Gaza’s International Airport and the tremendous efforts made by the Palestinian Civil Aviation Authority to set up robust systems and structures, there was never true Palestinian sovereignty over the airport. It was in fact under direct Israeli control as far as core operational matters. The southern sector of the Israeli Aviation Authority managed the airport’s affairs and directly supervised most engineering and technical details related to location, flight paths, runway operations, air traffic control and other critical aspects of running an airport.

There was no physical Israeli presence in the facility. However, security surveillance cameras were directly feeding footage to Israeli authorities. The general political environment and realities on the ground, especially given the presence of Israeli settlements in the Strip at that time, partly explain full Israeli control at the time. Moreover, strategically, the location was not ideal for an airport given the crosswind factors and close proximity to the borders with Egypt and Israel. The presence of settlements on 40% of Gaza’s land at the time reduced access to alternative locations for the airport. 

Despite the above, Palestinians had reason to celebrate the opening of the airport: finally, they could travel to the outside world without needing to go through Israeli or Egyptian-controlled crossings. The nascent Palestinian Airlines signed one agreement after another with multiple nations to allow their aircraft access to various airports. They also hoped that the airport would support the local economy by increasing exports and bringing in trade. However, the Israelis and Palestinians failed to reach an agreement on transportation of cargo in and out, particularly over the issue of tax collection. The Protocol on Economic Relations (also known as the Paris Protocol) was a critical annex to the 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement between Israel and the PLO. It set a general framework as well as specific details surrounding taxation in the Palestinian Territories.[4] Since the airport was a new endeavor, complex details were to be discussed, agreed upon and implemented to begin the transportation of cargo and commercial goods. There were even plans for a cargo hangar as part of the airport facilities. But the airport never served as a conduit for economic growth and only briefly facilitated the transportation of passengers.

With the onset of the second Intifada, everything was placed on hold. In fact, the airport rarely operated after September 2000 and its destruction began soon after. In 2001, the Israeli military destroyed the southeastern-most part of the runway (displaced threshold area) and bombed the main radar facility. In 2002, Israeli bulldozers destroyed the runway, permanently shutting down the airport.[5] After that, the rest of the facility was gradually destroyed by multiple Israeli attacks. In 2010, its remnants were recycled for construction purposes due to the shortages of building materials after the blockade was tightened on Gaza in 2007.  

The Israeli government of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon justified the airport’s destruction because it considered that the 1998 Wye River Agreement, which included the protocol for the airport’s operations, had not been implemented as agreed. Israel believed the principles upon which the airport had been established—ongoing security coordination and prevention of smuggling—had not been robustly implemented.[6] After the 2000 Camp David Summit failed to produce a comprehensive political resolution for the conflict, and when the presence of armed groups in Gaza continued to grow, Israel destroyed the airport.

What Would It Take for Gaza to Have an Airport Again?

Future efforts to again establish an airport in Gaza must account for the major changes in the current conditions of the coastal enclave. Political shifts include the departure of the Palestinian Authority from Gaza and Hamas’s control of the Strip. Geographic changes include the spread of smuggling and attack tunnels near the old airport location in the southeast, which have become a common site for armed clashes. Military shifts include the unprecedented heavy activity of the Egyptian Air Force over northern Sinai and eastern Egypt, whose airspace was in the past used to vector flights in and out of Gaza. Strategically, Israeli security paradigms for dealing with Gaza require monitoring the movement of people and goods in and out. Israel may continue to be reluctant to approve an airport should it require aircraft to fly close to Israeli airspace, as had been the case with the 1998 airport. A new airport in Gaza would require a fresh approach to achieve utilitarian gains for people in the Strip. A new location away from Egyptian and Israeli borders would have to be considered to provide alternate routes for incoming and outgoing flights.

The demand for an airport has been repeatedly raised by Gaza’s local government (run by Hamas), which has conditioned any long-term truce agreements upon the establishment of a seaport and an airport.[7] This was evident in recent months during mediation efforts to broker a long-term truce by the UN peace envoy, former head of the Quartet on the Middle East, Qatar, and Turkey. Given the realities of Hamas’ relationship with Israel and the rest of the world, it is unlikely that Israel would approve of a Palestinian-run airport, especially if Hamas were to control it. The issue however, will not vanish from discussions and negotiations as Hamas, and indeed, most Palestinians in Gaza, insist on the demand for an airport.

At first glance, it would appear that Egypt is unlikely to support providing alternatives, which may render one of its chief foreign policy cards, the Rafah Crossing, irrelevant. Since 2007, Egypt’s semi-permanent closure of the passenger crossing and severe restrictions on who can travel have been a consistent element of its policy towards the Gaza Strip, which it perceives as a source of instability. As a result of Hamas’ ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the accusation that the insurgency in the Sinai is collaborating with Gaza-based groups who support attacks on the Egyptian military, Egypt will be concerned by the opening up of the Strip in any way that could embolden Hamas and threaten the stability of its eastern borders. Consequently, establishing an airport in Gaza will have to incorporate Egypt’s security concerns and ensure that operating it will not directly or indirectly benefit extreme actors seeking to destabilize the Sinai. Additionally, care must be taken to not give Hamas the wrong impression that the construction of an airport would absolve it from meeting the obligations set forth by the international community, including Egyptian expectations around security.

Successful operation of an airport in Gaza would in fact benefit Egypt strategically and politically. A part of Egypt’s military doctrine to address the insurgency entails isolating the Sinai in order to combat the threats. Egypt maintains that closing the Rafah crossing allows its armed forces to operate without interference or hindrance by the passage of Gazans through its territory. Allowing Palestinians to have alternatives will reduce the humanitarian implications of closing the Rafah crossing when military operations necessitate doing so.

Despite the international consensus that the Palestinian Authority (PA) must regain administrative and political control of Gaza before full reconstruction of the Strip commences, the current political gridlock points to a reality in which the PA’s return seems unlikely for the near future. Repeated agreements, the latest of which was in 2014, have failed to produce true administrative and political reconciliation between the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Gaza’s de-facto government. This situation might cause the PA to be reluctant to support the establishment of an airport in the Strip until it is in control of border crossings, government ministries, and internal security forces. Turning this reluctance around and obtaining political and diplomatic support from the PA will require considerable demonstration that an airport in Gaza will not come at its expense.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group called on relevant parties to “demonstrate that stabilizing Gaza will not come at the expense of the two-state solution.” This can be achieved by “strengthening the frayed connections between Gaza and the West Bank, including by increasing Gaza-West Bank travel and trade in ways that do not jeopardize Israeli interests and by formal declarations that Israel views Gaza as an integral part of any future Palestinian state." [8]

Given that at this time the PA is not technically, financially, or administratively capable of operating an airport in Gaza, an independent, professional workforce under the supervision of an international third party needs to oversee control of the airport. An international third party (such as the United Nations) could help get the facility up and running, and when the time comes for the Palestinian Authority’s return to the Gaza Strip, a solid infrastructure will be in place. It is important not to politicize the airport and its operations, and instead maintain a functional and a humanitarian context.                                                                          

Israel has repeatedly rejected the idea of establishing an airport in Gaza, citing security concerns. The success of any future attempts to do so will be contingent upon the introduction of independent control and verification mechanisms to address Israel’s reasonable security concerns over the potential for smuggling weapons and fighters. Without the presence of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, a robust verification-based model is essential to ensure that the facility is used for civilian purposes only. The implementation needs to be conducted by an outside power, which is both capable and accepted by Palestinians, Israelis, and other key world players. Several aviation-focused agreements and systems have been created and implemented by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and relevant European and regional bodies to regulate aviation operations, particularly over the Mediterranean Sea. Such systems could be implemented in the Gaza Strip to ensure technical and professional compliance with international standards for safety, security, and quality service.[9] [10] [11]

Conclusion

An airport alone cannot overturn Gaza’s access and transportation challenges. The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between Israel and the Palestinian Authority laid out a vision for how to sustainably improve access in and out of the Gaza Strip “to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground.” [12] In addition to calling for negotiations on the establishment of an airport to be conducted, it stipulated that a safe passage should be established between Gaza and the West Bank, the construction of a seaport should commence, and the Rafah crossing should be open.

The collapse of indirect talks mediated by Tony Blair to reach a long-term truce between Gaza and Israel should not be cause to stop looking for practical ways to stabilize Gaza’s rapidly deteriorating conditions. Both Hamas’s government and residents in Gaza insist on the construction of an airport as part of any long-term truce deal with Israel.[13] The issue will not go away until a solution that works for the complex and nuanced needs of all involved parties is reached.

It may seem unlikely that Israel would approve constructing an airport as a standalone project and would only accept it as part of a comprehensive peace deal. However, exploring options to construct an airport in a speedy, ad-hoc manner may be the best way to jump-start Gaza’s recovery. Such an approach could also pave the way for more concrete measures aimed at long-term stability by providing a lifeline for critical materials to support the healthcare, education, and agricultural sectors, as well as establishing an opportunity to export limited quantities of Palestinian goods to external markets.[14]

Photo Credit: M. Azizul Islam, jetphotos.net




[1] - UNCTAD Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people – July 6, 2015

[2] - World Bank Report: Gaza Economy on the Verge of Collapse, Youth Unemployment Highest in the Region at 60 Percent

[3] - UN Multimedia – June 17, 1964

[4] - UNISPAL Document - Agreement on Gaza Strip and Jericho Area (June 20, 1994)

[5] - Al Jazeera America – Dashed Dreams: How Gaza’s short-lived airport never took off (July 25, 2014)

[6] - NBC – Grounded in Gaza but hoping to fly again (May 19, 2005)

[7] - Jerusalem Post – “Hamas: Long-term truce with Israel only after Gaza gets airport, seaport” (September 2, 2015)

[8] - Executive Summary – International Crisis Group – No Exit? Gaza & Israel Between Wars (August 26, 2015)

[9] - EuroMed Aviation Project - Euro-Mediterranean Common Aviation Area

[10] - European Commission - Euro-Mediterranean Aviation Agreement between the European Union and Israel

[11] - UN Aviation Standards for Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Air Transport Operations (September 2012)

[12] - UNISPAL Document - Agreement on Movement and Access (November 15, 2005)

[13] - Guardian - Gaza's ruined airport and unbuilt seaport fuel dreams of independence (August 18, 2014)

[14] - Jerusalem Post - UNCTAD Coordinator in the Palestinian Territories: Reconnect Gaza to the World (September 2, 2015)