ATAROT — On the northern edge of Jerusalem, just inside the security wall and overshadowed by apartment buildings in the Kafr Aqab neighborhood, the once rather grand Jerusalem Airport has been gradually fading into rubble since the last planes took off and landed twenty years ago.
As revelatory research by the Jerusalem academic and tour guide Dr. Eldad Brin published earlier this year has established, the airport — set up as a military airfield by the British Mandate authorities in the 1920s, and also known as Atarot Airport and Qalandiya Airport — was a steadily growing hub of activity from 1949 to 1967, when Jordan was the occupying power.
At its height in the mid-1960s, about 100,000 passengers flew in and out annually, with flights shuttling the Arab elites to and from some 15 destinations as far afield as Rome, Beirut, Baghdad, Kuwait, Doha, Jeddah and Cairo. Grand hotels were built in East Jerusalem to accommodate the high-flying visitors.
Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif flew back and forth when filming scenes for “Lawrence of Arabia” in the Jordanian desert in the early 1960s. Today’s Royal Jordanian Airlines took shape here, with the kingdom’s Jerusalem Airport handling twice as many passengers as Jordan’s only other international airport, in Amman.
King Hussein, himself a pilot, availed himself of its services, as seen in photographs at a captivating exhibition, “Gateway to the World,” researched by Brin and currently on public display at Jerusalem’s Albright Institute.
US secretary of state John F. Dulles used the airport on an official trip in May 1953, Brin records. British Airways’ predecessor BOAC reportedly considered opening a London-Jerusalem route.
Pope Paul VI initially intended to land here on his 1964 visit to the Holy Land, but his Boeing was too hefty for the shortish, narrow runway.
Nonetheless, his visit prompted a surge in Christian pilgrimages, which culminated in an Italian airline bringing several planeloads of visitors for Christmas 1967 — by when, of course, Israel had captured the area from Jordan in the Six Day War.
An airport in isolation
Expanding the borders of municipal Jerusalem and incorporating Atarot as part of its sovereign capital, Israel attempted to maintain the airport’s international functioning — in part, as the Jordanians had done, as ostensible proof of the legitimacy of its presence. But it could not replicate Jordan’s success.
While Arab nations overwhelmingly did not recognize Jordan’s 1948 occupation and 1950 annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, they did allow many of their airlines to use Jerusalem Airport (and at least nine Western airlines were represented by tourism agencies in Jordanian East Jerusalem), Brin found. There was no such tolerance for Israeli control.
All the Arab airline flights inevitably halted. Pan Am considered opening a route, but was barred from doing so by the US government.
El Al tried to make the airport work for international flights, even attempting a ruse whereby arrivals would briefly kiss the tarmac at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv before flying on to Jerusalem under a different flight number, Brin says. But these were plainly international flights to Jerusalem, and even closely allied countries, wary of granting any perceived legitimacy to Israel regarding the unresolved fate of Jerusalem, refused to have anything to do with the charade.
Instead, Atarot served a domestic Israeli clientele — with flights to Haifa and Mahanayim in the north, then-Israeli-held Sinai, and Tel Aviv.
Prime minister Menachem Begin used Atarot, memorably, when flying home from peace talks with Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1978. Cloud-seeding flights took off here; private firms offered romantic flights in the skies of Jerusalem.
But when the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, Atarot became far too dangerous to use and was shut down altogether.
Kafr Aqab, a Palestinian village Israel had formally incorporated into Jerusalem precisely because it wanted to control a neighborhood so close to the airport, had greatly expanded, including upwards with its high-rises, and become increasingly lawless — an untenable combination for planes taking off and landing next door.
The evidence of its high-flying past, and its abrupt grounding, is all too sadly plain to see at Atarot today — including sandbags and gun emplacements from 20 years ago on the upper levels of the terminal building.
The site is now largely used as a depot for buses plying the East Jerusalem-Ramallah route; they drive along a short section of what was once the runway before parking in neat rows in front of what was formerly the terminal.
The terminal building rises tall, decaying and unloved — its windows smashed, its interior strewn with rubble.
The Jerusalem stone main entrance is as golden as when its last passengers passed through it, but all around is debris.
At ground level, you can see the belts where baggage was conveyed; what looks like a former ticket counter; offices; the remains of an exhibition on the airport’s past that was held here in 1998.
Up a floor via a once-elegant spiral staircase in the heart of the building, you can enter a control room, with some dusty IDF paperwork strewn on the floor.
Buildings nearby include an aircraft hangar and the shell of what looks like the fire station.
Also nearby, rising from amid the weeds, is a metal “airstair” used by the boarding passengers of yester-decades — now a rusting stairway to nowhere, or to heaven if you prefer.
As this writer surveyed the sorry scene a few days ago, a Border Police vehicle pulled up, and two officers asked what I was doing here. Although the Atarot Industrial Zone immediately to the south is widely used, apparently the ex-airport is supposed to be a closed area — it is situated, after all, across the pre-1967 Green Line, directly adjacent to the security barrier, and immediately below those Kafr Aqab high-rises.
However unpromising its location in the current political reality — wedged between Kafr Aqab to the north, A-Ram to the east, and the industrial zone and the Kuwaiti-built “airport neighborhood” of lavish Arab homes to the south — the saga of Atarot airport is not yet over. Quite the reverse. And no, we have not reached the utopian era in which a glorious new airport is to rise from the debris to serve all of the region’s peacefully traveling peoples.
On December 6, rather, the District Committee for Planning and Building, under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, is to discuss advancing plans for an approximately 9,000-home neighborhood to be built here — plans repeatedly put aside by past Israeli governments because of their ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to Benjamin Shafran, a Jerusalem educator, Atarot enthusiast, and longtime supporter of the building project, most of the housing is earmarked for ultra-Orthodox residents, but some — “perhaps 1,000 units; the number is not finalized,” he says — is intended for Arabs. The area is mostly state land, but some is privately owned, by Jews and by Arabs.
In advance of next month’s hearing, Jerusalem City Council’s Planning and Building Committee on Wednesday gave its backing for the planned neighborhood. “Jerusalem is a living, breathing, growing capital city of the state of Israel,” said Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. “The housing project will provide thousands of much-needed housing units.” Likewise, Ofer Berkowitz, head of the opposition on the council, hailed the city’s approval as a “historic permit for construction in Jerusalem.”
The project was bitterly opposed by Meretz councilor Laura Wharton, who urged the construction of a Palestinian neighborhood; Meretz and Peace Now see it severing the West Bank from East Jerusalem and thus further dooming prospects of a viable Palestinian state.
Shafran says the proposal also envisages a joint Jewish-Arab commercial area, in the part of the site closest to the security barrier. The thinking is that if the development provides employment for local Palestinians — some 2,300 of whom already work at the nearby Atarot industrial zone, with thousands of additional permits soon to be issued — and includes Arab housing, this might alleviate some of the security risks.
The approval process, including provision for objections, is likely to be protracted.
Kafr Aqab was specified in the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan as one of the areas to be included in the “sovereign capital of the State of Palestine.” The European Union has already voiced its objections to the plan, in the context of its wider opposition to the coalition’s latest settlement expansion announcements. The Biden Administration is expected to weigh in.
It will likely be 2-3 years before tractors could break ground, in the assessment of Shafran, who praises the potential development as a case of “historical justice.” Jews lived in this area between 1912 and 1948, he notes; among the early residents of Moshav Atarot, indeed, was future prime minister Levi Eshkol. It was a focus of heavy fighting during the War of Independence, resisting the Jordanian Arab Legion until the Haganah ordered its evacuation, after which it was looted and burned by the Jordanian forces, and then repurposed for the Hashemites’ airport.
Shafran notes that the idea of housing for the ultra-Orthodox here is widely backed by secular advocates, who hope it will relieve some of the pressure in more central Jerusalem areas, and by most ultra-Orthodox leaders, though some oppose it, in so awkward a location, as a potential ghetto.
Researcher Brin, by contrast, regards the housing project as a “great mistake,” he told AP on Wednesday, advocating that the site be converted to an open space and cultural center. “I’m a romantic,” he said. “You have this very big area, in the heart of this vast Arab community,” with almost no parks or recreational areas.
As for the terminal building, Shafran said it is listed for preservation. He dismissed rumors that it could be converted into a yeshiva, and speculated that it could become a hotel, or possibly a museum.
The museum idea, at least, would please Brin, he told AP.
If so, it could have quite the story to tell.
“Gateway to the World: Jerusalem Airport 1948-1967,” curated by Natalia Kopelyanskaya, now extended through December 6, is at Jerusalem’s W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.