A group of Palestinians took off to Cyprus on Monday, for the first time using Ramon Airport outside the southern city of Eilat as part of a pilot program allowing the facility to be used by residents of the West Bank for certain flights, part of a series of gestures from Israel aimed at easing the lives of Palestinians.
Until today, Palestinians wishing to fly abroad needed to travel to Jordan and board a flight from there, or secure a hard-to-come-by entry permit into Israel to fly from Ben Gurion Airport.
Arkia Airlines is operating the inaugural service, which is flying 40 residents of Bethlehem and Hebron from Ramon Airport at 11:30 a.m. to Larnaca. A return flight is scheduled for Friday. The route will also serve Israelis, who will be seated alongside the Palestinian passengers.
Flights to Antalya and Istanbul in Turkey operated by Pegasus Airlines and AtlasGlobal were also meant to lift off starting Monday. However, the Israel Airports Authority announced a day earlier that those plans were delayed.
Oz Berlowitz, CEO of Arkia, said in a statement: “Until today, flights for Palestinians in a unique framework, and in particular from Ramon Airport, were just a dream. And indeed the dream has been fulfilled.”
Amir Aasi, a strategic consultant for Arkia who initiated the program, told the Israel Hayom daily that he had received inquiries from Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who were interested in flying from the airport.
At this stage, residents of the blockaded territory are not allowed to avail themselves of the flights from Ramon. Israel and Egypt maintain a strict closure on the Strip in an attempt to stop the Hamas terror group that rules Gaza from importing arms and weapons.
Palestinian passengers will pass through a security check upon leaving the West Bank on their way down south, in addition to the checks at the airport for all passengers.
The initiative was spearheaded by Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian. The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories unit (COGAT) has been working with the Shin Bet and the Israel Police to ensure proper security protocols at Ramon Airport as part of the initiative, Alian’s office told Hebrew media earlier in the month.
Ramon Airport, which was built just north of tourist hub Eilat on the Red Sea coast at Israel’s southern tip, was meant as a gateway for European tourists to reach the resort city, as well as serving domestic flights.
To get there, Palestinians from the northern West Bank will need to travel five hours or more, more than double the distance to Amman, though the latter route can involve long waits at the Allenby Bridge border crossing.
The COGAT initiative was rumored to be set to be announced ahead of US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel last month as part of his package of steps aimed at improving Palestinian livelihood but was instead officially presented in August.
A Palestinian official who spoke to The Times of Israel at the time said Ramallah had not been consulted about the idea. He dismissed it as impractical and argued that the Palestinians be allowed to have their own airport in the West Bank.
Last year, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej proposed turning the site of the former Atarot Airport in East Jerusalem, where Israel is seeking to advance a controversial housing project for Jewish residents, into an airfield under joint Israeli-Palestinian ownership. The plan has yet to take off.