Thousands of residents of Eilat took to the streets on Tuesday to protest the impending closure of a small Tel Aviv airport that serves as a main transit point through which residents of Israel’s largest metropolitan area travel to the southernmost city.
The Sde Dov airport in northern Tel Aviv is due to close in July, after which its land will be sold by the state to developers planning to build the country’s largest beachfront park, thousands of new apartments and commercial areas expected to produce up to 25,000 jobs for the city.
But it also means moving domestic Tel Aviv-Eilat flights out of the small, easily accessed airport to the larger and much busier Ben Gurion Airport. Eilat residents fear the move will reduce the number of flights and ease with which many Israelis reach their resort city.
As part of the protest Tuesday, dozens of trucks and taxis blocked the main entrances to the city on Highways 90 and 12, with some carrying signs reading, “Bibi [Netanyahu], don’t cut us off.”
Some protesters burned tires to block the roads.
Protesters also shuttered Eilat Airport for several hours, and yachts on the Red Sea left port in a protest flotilla along the coast.
Situated at Israel’s southernmost point on the Red Sea, Eilat is almost totally cut off from the rest of the country by the vast Negev wilderness. Driving from Tel Aviv takes four to five hours, while a flight into Sde Dov airport takes less than an hour.
Forcing people heading to Eilat to go through Ben Gurion could add two hours to the trip in some situations, according to some estimates.
Eilat’s Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi spoke to some 3,000 protesters gathered at the city’s Eilat Airport — which is being replaced by the larger Ramon Airport constructed north of the city — and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay Sde Dov’s closure.
“Today’s cry by Eilat residents will be part of ongoing action that will include, starting Sunday, a protest tent at Sde Dov where we will launch a hunger strike,” Halevi said.
“Sde Dov is Eilat’s oxygen supply, and the decision to close it is shocking and callous, and will cause terrible harm to the city.”
Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, has the power to order such a year-long delay of the airport’s closure on national security grounds, Halevi said.
The protesters were backed by most of the city’s institutions. Schools devoted the day’s studies to teaching students about the Sde Dov issue and many students joined in the protests.
Dr. Eldar Berkovich, director of Eilat’s Yoseftal Hospital, said the closure could mean a dramatic reduction in health services to Eilat residents. “Doctors who fly in to serve us have announced they won’t come anymore. That means the services we are able to deliver will be dramatically scaled back,” Berkovich told the business journal The Marker on Tuesday.
He added: “Every day we send a plane full of patients to treatments in the center of the country — and that’s just Clalit [health fund]. I imagine there’s another plane for the patients of the other clinics. The closure of Sde Dov means a significant number of those patients won’t receive their treatments.”