20 years after its opening, destroyed Gaza airport embodies grounded peace hopes

The 1998 inauguration of the facility near Rafah was seen as a symbol of Palestinian hopes for peace and independence. Now, much like those aspirations, it lies in ruin

This picture taken on September 9, 2018 shows a view of the destroyed and deserted terminal of the Gaza Strip's former 'Yasser Arafat International Airport,' in the Palestinian enclave's southern city of Rafah (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
This picture taken on September 9, 2018 shows a view of the destroyed and deserted terminal of the Gaza Strip's former 'Yasser Arafat International Airport,' in the Palestinian enclave's southern city of Rafah (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The opening of the Palestinians’ first airport, in the presence of US president Bill Clinton, was a symbol of the hopes for independence and peace kindled by the Oslo accords.

But 25 years after Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the first of the historic agreements on September 13, 1993, the airport in Gaza lies in tatters, along with Palestinian hopes for an independent state.

Today the concrete arrival halls remain in place, but much of the rest of the site is covered in piles of rubbish and rubble — the remnants of years of war and neglect.

The runway, 60 meters (65 yards) wide, is scattered with refuse, dragged in by donkey cart from nearby refugee camps.

Daifallah al-Akhras, the chief engineer of the airport, admitted he wept on a recent visit to the terminal.

“We built the airport to be the first symbol of sovereignty,” he said. “Now you don’t see anything but destruction and ruin.”

This picture taken on September 9, 2018 shows a view of the destroyed and deserted terminal of the Gaza Strip’s former ‘Yasser Arafat International Airport’ in the Palestinian enclave’s southern city of Rafah (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

‘Signs of freedom’

When the airport opened in late 1998 it was one of the most tangible symbols of the Oslo accords.

Many saw the deals as paving the way to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but their five-year transitional period expired without a resolution to the conflict.

The airport was opened despite the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a Jewish radical opposed to the agreements.

By 1998 the accords were fraying, but Clinton, along with his wife Hillary, still attended the ceremony to inaugurate the Yasser Arafat International Airport.

US president Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, wave to dignitaries after they inaugurated the VIP terminal at Gaza International Airport at Rafah Monday, December 14, 1998 (AP Photo/Santiago Lyon)

Built with funding from countries across the globe, it hosted the newly formed Palestinian Airlines and was able to handle hundreds of thousands of passengers a year, with many airlines opening up routes there.

Officials said the airline had one Boeing 727, which could accommodate 145 passengers, and two smaller planes.

Israeli security forces had a limited presence to monitor passports and bags.

A Palestinian man gives the ‘victory’ sign as he celebrates with others the opening of the Gaza International airport, Tuesday Nov. 24, 1998 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath, who was there during Clinton’s visit, said that for all involved, the airport and plans for a larger harbor in Gaza were major landmarks.

“The airport and the harbor were not only signs of sovereignty, they were signs of freedom,” he told AFP.

“They were to free us from Israel’s total control of everything that comes into Palestine, and everything that comes from Palestine. That’s why to us they were very, very important.”

The planned expansion of the harbor never happened.

‘A waste dump’

Just two years after Clinton’s visit, with the Oslo process seemingly collapsed and Clinton’s effort to broker a permanent accord between Arafat and then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak unsuccessful — a failure the US president blamed on the PLO leader — the second Palestinian intifada broke out. The uprising, characterized by a strategic onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings of Israeli targets, was to last five bloody years.

In 2001 Israeli warplanes bombed a runway in response to a Palestinian terror attack that killed four soldiers, and badly damaged several of the buildings.

In 2005 Israel pulled out all its residents and military forces from the Strip. Some saw the so-called “disengagement” as an opportunity for Palestinians to practice self-rule.

However the territory almost immediately became a launching pad for rockets attacks by Palestinian terror groups. In 2007 the Hamas terror group took control of Gaza. Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, fought three wars with Israel in the intervening years, and the airport was further devastated by Israeli bombing.

No planes have taken off or landed for nearly 20 years, and thieves have stripped the site of valuable equipment including radars.

Palestinians dig through what was once the runway of Gaza’s bombed-out airport to collect rubble and gravel needed for construction in the war-ravaged territory, on the outskirts of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 16, 2010 (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The site has seen further tension in recent months, with major protests against Israel sparking clashes along the border just a few hundred meters away.

The border violence, which Gaza’s Hamas rulers orchestrated, has included rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as attempts to breach the border fence and attack Israeli soldiers.

According to a count by the Associated Press, at least 127 Palestinians in Gaza and one Israeli have been killed since the protests and clashes erupted on March 30. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members.

When AFP visited recently, a number of young men with hand tools were picking away at the walls of the main arrival hall.

Young men and children sifted through the rubble looking for valuable stones or iron bars to sell.

On the outskirts of the site, Bedouin women grazed sheep.

Zuhair Zomlot, coordinator of the Civil Aviation Authority in Hamas-run Gaza, joined AFP on the tour.

“The airport used to be packed with thousands of travelers and we received presidents and world leaders,” he said, pointing to parts of the site in various stages of decay.

“Now it’s turned into a ruin, a waste dump. It’s a tragedy.”

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