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Gaza’s airport, once a symbol of statehood, is now a wasteland

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At 8:50 a.m., I stopped a taxi in western Gaza City and asked the driver to go to the airport. The driver gazed at me as I sat next to him. He said: “Which airport? Do you mean the Cairo one?” I replied: “To the Gaza airport. Go to Rafah now, please.”

Muhsin al-Balawi, the 23-year-old driver, may have been right to be extremely perplexed over my query. He had never been an airplane passenger. He was born three years before the airport opened in 1998.

After 40 minutes of driving south on Salah al-Din Road, the main thoroughfare in the Strip, we hit the end of the asphalt road. Hundreds of yards further stood the departures terminal, which was surrounded by hills made of household waste. 

Ruins of the Gaza International Airport hall for VIP travelers, in the southern Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Rotting remains of a donkey amid the ruins of the Gaza International Airport. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

(Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Everything across this 690 acres stretch of semi-desert field was lifeless. A stench from a ripped apart donkey’s corpse filled the air​​. I was sure I will never visit this place after dark.

This arid zone was once the first airport for Palestinians in Gaza, a step towards a dream of independent state. In 2000, during the events of the Intifada, Israel bombed the control tower, then the runway, and finally the elegant Moroccan-inspired terminals. In 2001, Israeli army bulldozers flattened what remained. 

Few dare to reach this area where dozens of large bomb craters pocket the landscape, due to the Israeli bombs. Maybe one or two scavenging the field can be found milling about each week. Arriving to this area is fraught with security concerns because of proximity to Israeli military bases, which are ready to fire on any suspicion of movement in the vicinity of the airport’s ruins.

Near a fallen concrete column, Abdullah al-Qarra, 29, was collecting some rusty iron bars from the ruins of the arrival hall to sell them in a local scrap market.

“Despite I was 11 at that time, but I felt a monumental event happened during the opening ceremony of the airport, but I really cried once I visited it after it destruction.” Abdullah said.

Abdullah, who once flew out of the airport with his father from Gaza to Riyadh when he was 14, recalls their three-hour trip. “But if I am lucky today, the same flight might take a whole day, due of the routine procedures at the Egyptian side of Rafah crossing including the trip to the Cairo airport, but this will happen only if the crossing is already open.”

Throughout 2017, the Rafah border crossing has opened for 20 days in total. Israel’s ongoing blockade, in full cooperation with Egypt, is about to enter its 11th year.

The Rafah crossing is the Gaza’s only gate to the world and was closed nine months ago. It has been reopened intermittently, as Cairo implemented a travel blockade since the summer of 2013.

Abdullah, who failed out of school in Cairo where he was studying management last year, says that Egyptian authorities impose a lot of restrictions on Gaza’s travelers. “Gaza’s passengers were forced to stop and held for several hours at military checkpoints in Sinai, before they proceeded to countless further checkpoints on their nearly 450 km trip to Cairo.”

“One time, the Egyptian military personnel at Raysa checkpoint seized my Samsung mobile phone and $200 USD, saying: ‘Oh, son of a bitch! give me that,'” Abdullah said. Raysa is a military checkpoint in el-Arish in the northern Sinai and is well-known to Gaza’s travelers who often cite waiting in long lines of cars for a very slow luggage inspection by the Egyptian army.

While talking to Abdullah, a horse-drawn cart passes in the area to collect used building blocks.

“I think this airport gave us a sense of freedom and independence because we could travel anywhere without Arab or Israeli humiliation. Patients with visas to enter Israel are turned back arbitrarily by Israeli officers at the Erez Crossing. Some are blackmailed, others are asked to work as spies,” Abdullah told Mondoweiss.

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, reported last December that the number of would-be patients being summoned for questioning at the Erez checkpoint spiked dramatically last year, with 601 medical permit applicants sent for interrogation in 2016, compared to 146 in 2015 and 179 in 2014. 

Back by the defunct airport, I might have been able to ignore the smell of the donkey’s corpse, but before long the quiet was broken by the whirring of two Israeli F16s hovering overhead as well as a handful of drones scanning the area.

Mohammed Salah. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

(Photo: Mohammed Asad)

(Photo: Mohammed Asad)

About 300 meters north of the departures terminal, I met Mohammed Salah, a 70-year-old retired public employee. He was accompanied by construction workers who are building his new house nearby.

He was once a passenger on a flight from Gaza to the beach town of Larnaca in Cyprus. “It was like an old bus with shaky wings. We felt some worry about the pilot, if he was really qualified,” he recalled.

The less than one hour flight was interesting, with a cabin crew serving coffee and biscuits in those brief moments between take off and landing. “In 1999, it was the first time I had flown on a Palestinian plane out of Gaza,” said Salah, “No one stops you in long queues as seen in Egyptian’s Rafah or at Erez.”

Salah said that airport was the beginning of a dream of a state of Palestine, “but it has been turned it into a helipad for ghosts,” he lamented.

I asked Salah what would force him to build in this semi-desert area.

“For Israel, shelling the concrete building of the airport means eliminating Palestinian existence, but ​​building a house here proves the idea that the Palestinian man is able to live and rebuild again. The idea cannot die, but the stones are built and destroyed easily,” Salah told Mondowiess.

Aviation engineer Ahmed Al-Khairi, told me that the airport started up with one flight a week and increased up to four routes a day.

“On Saturdays, we had 16 roundtrip flights to Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, Dubai and Ankara. The Palestinians held their humanity and traveled without any restrictions at that time,” he said.

(Photo: Mohammed Asad)

(Photo: Mohammed Asad)

(Photo: Mohammed Asad)

According to Al-Khairi, 20,000 passengers traveled through the Gaza airport in 1998, about 61,000 in 1999 and around 59,000 in 2000.

He added that during the bombardment, the crews collected what they could carry of the devices and move them out.

Before leaving the place, I tried to find to Abdullah, but he was gone. Perhaps he was satisfied with his collection of bars, or he was worried about those aircrafts.

Palestinians have an urgent need for an airport. We have suffered humiliation when trying to travel abroad for medical treatment, education and other humanitarian purposes, whether through the Rafah crossing, which is permanently closed except for only a few days, or Erez.

Ahmad Kabariti

Ahmad Kabariti is a freelance journalist based in Gaza.

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19 Responses

  1. Maghlawatan on January 4, 2018, 11:17 am

    Unless I am mistaken an Israeli pilot carved a star of David into the grounds of the airport during an Israeli tantrum .

  2. Maghlawatan on January 4, 2018, 2:03 pm

    The airport is more of a reflection of what happened to Israel. The Oslo process offered Israel a route to normality.
    2 men decided to destroy it. They were both Askenazi leaders of Likud . Rabin was murdered after relentless incitement from a man who wanted Israelis to connect with their mental sewers. Today’s Israel is the fruit of his work. Fucked up Israel.
    Netanyahu’s Israel.
    Israelis singing “no school in Gaza. There are no children there ”
    Bennett and Regev in government.

    Sharon was the other nihilist.

    “I’ve learned a lot this year.. I learned that things don’t always turn our the way you planned, or the way you think they should. And I’ve learned that there are things that go wrong that don’t always get fixed or get put back together the way they were before. I’ve learned that some broken things stay broken, and I’ve learned that you can get through bad times and keep looking for better ones, as long as you have people who love you.”

    Jennifer Weiner, Good in Bed

    Thinking people despise Israel

  3. Rob Roy on January 4, 2018, 6:07 pm

    Thank you, M. Kabariti, for going to Gaza’s airport, to take these stark photos and to bring us this sad and lonely story. My heart weeps for the Palestinians.

    • Cazador on January 5, 2018, 4:31 pm

      Rob Roy,

      So does my heart.

      Israel’s zionism was what Albert Einstein feared and condemned the most as Nazi and fascist in his December 4, 1948 co-signed letter (with 26 NY known Jews, intellectuals, doctors …) to the New York Times.

      His letter begins like this:

      Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.»

      He didn’t want Menachem Begin to meet the US President so the world wouldn’t think that the US was backing the creation of Israel.

      You’ll find the rest of the letter at this address :

  4. Boris on January 4, 2018, 10:14 pm

    “The Palestinians held their humanity and traveled without any restrictions at that time”.

    I am not sure what is this deal about humanity, but it is true that they could travel without restrictions prior to 2000.

    Then they started the war they call intifada.

    The rest is commentary…

    • Talkback on January 5, 2018, 4:35 am

      Yes, it’s never good to uprise against an occupation the occupier wants everybody to forget, but can’t and occasionally needs to use more than a million bullets to ensure its occupation and the terror and collective punishment that comes with it.

      If only the Palestinians were as unproblematic to the occupier as other sheeps under occupation.

      And of course it’s not your Apartheid Junta’s occupation which is an act of an aggression and the result of a war it started in 1967 that is a “war”, but an uprise of the occupied people against it.

      And of course you won’t tell us what the Butcher of Shabra and Shatila did to provoke the Palestinians into this uprising.

      Always perveting the truth, aren’t you Zionists?

      • Cazador on January 5, 2018, 11:21 am


        «Always perveting the truth, aren’t you Zionists?»

        The Nutàyahu’s government pays his Hasbara liars good money for their handy bull… writings. I’m sure they have already access to documents showing all the possible verbal and written counter-attacks against Israel and its fascist, apartheid, genocidal governments.

      • catalan on January 5, 2018, 12:40 pm

        “The Nutàyahu’s government pays his Hasbara liars good money for their handy bull… writings. ”
        It’s the truth, the money I receive from the Israeli government does allow for a comfortable living. They are very generous and my hourly rate is high.

      • Mooser on January 5, 2018, 1:20 pm

        “They are very generous and my hourly rate is high.”

        But they sure get their money’s-worth out of you “catalan”. You are worth every penny they pay you.

        Just make sure to register as FARA, and declare the money as income.

      • catalan on January 5, 2018, 4:15 pm

        “Just make sure to register as FARA, and declare the money as income.”
        I have to? I thought, what with the whole freedom of expression thing, I can write whatever I want. But yeah, Netanyahu is a generous guy, with your skills you could make a good buck too. But I know you are too moral for that. Then again, you can make a bunch of money and then give it to the Ehad Tamimi legal defense fund if she needs it.

    • Marnie on January 8, 2018, 12:44 am

      Boris ‘Then they started the war they call intifada’

      Sounds like the chorus of a zionist lullabye Boris; now I have an idea how you all get to sleep. Greater minds and hearts saw the zionist claims and called them out as bullshit lies and the zionists’ fascists and nazi terrorists in Dec. 1948, a mere 6 months after the bastard birth of the zionist state. The end of the letter, from Cazador’s link above:

      “The discrepancies between the bold claims now being made by Begin and his party, and their record of past performance in Palestine bear the imprint of no ordinary political party. This is the unmistakable stamp of a Fascist party for whom terrorism (against Jews, Arabs, and British alike), and misrepresentation are means, and a “Leader State” is the goal.
      In the light of the foregoing considerations, it is imperative that the truth about Mr. Begin and his movement be made known in this country. It is all the more tragic that the top leadership of American Zionism has refused to campaign against Begin’s efforts, or even to expose to its own constituents the dangers to Israel from support to Begin.

      The undersigned therefore take this means of publicly presenting a few salient facts concerning Begin and his party; and of urging all concerned not to support this latest manifestation of fascism.”

      H.H. HARRIS,
      M. SINGER,
      New York, Dec. 2, 1948

  5. Cazador on January 5, 2018, 11:14 am

    I could hear the dramatic complaint throughout the world if it had been the opposite that did happen: the sole Israeli airport bombed to ruins by Palestine.

    One day, Israel will have to face the whole world, when the US of A and other NATO friends won’t anymore support zionist policies of land stealing, murder, lifetime imprisonment, war, bombing, use of chemical weapons, manipulation and control of world leaders and their countries, etc.

  6. Naftush on January 7, 2018, 2:08 pm

    Stop weeping. It’s the only airport in the world that was named for an airplane hijacker. Israel decommissioned it after it caught the airport’s founder and namesake smuggling weapons and wanted persons in his personal aircraft.

    • JosephA on January 7, 2018, 7:55 pm

      This seems rather asinine. How about providing s source?

      • Naftush on January 8, 2018, 12:38 am

        NBC news, May 19, 2005: […] Israel was always supposed to be in charge of the facility, as stipulated by the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 1995. […] The Israelis say the Palestinians failed to honor that agreement. “ Said [Shlomo] Dror, [spokesman for COGAT,] “[The airport] was a way to bypass the Interim Agreement, that the Palestinians can take out people without our notice and without our security checks, and bring in weapons or things like that.”

        n the Gaza-Jericho and other interim agreements, pages of carefully negotiated text were devoted to a detailed specification of the size of the Palestinian police force created to prevent terror, as well as the number and type of weapons that they were to be allowed to carry (with serial numbers recorded by the Israeli government to trace any abuse of these weapons). Other sections dealt with the detailed inspection procedures for land crossings and for the airport in Gaza, to ensure that no weapons or explosives were being smuggled in.

        “Lessons Unlearned,” By Gerald M. Steinberg, The Jerusalem Post, October 16, 2003
        “In reality, all of these paper provisions were violated from the beginning. When Arafat made his grand return from Tunis to Gaza in 1994, his profile was higher than usual, and not because of his greatly increased stature. He was sitting on the lap of a wanted Palestinian terrorist whose entry to Israel was prohibited, under the terms negotiated in the agreements. And in this and thousands of other motorcades, as well as in the aircraft flying into the Gaza airport (funded generously by the Europeans), and through the tunnels from Egypt, the PLO, Hamas, and the other factions assembled an arsenal of illegal weapons and explosives. Three years ago, Israel finally shut down the airport and closed the overland arms links […].

    • Marnie on January 8, 2018, 12:45 am

      “Stop weeping”.

      How do you pass moderation Nutbush?

      • JosephA on January 8, 2018, 8:28 am

        I am sorry, but if you think sources quoting Israelis are somehow going to sway me, keep in mind how often the Israelis have repeatedly lied since 1948. In the future, whenever I ask you for sources they will need to be from respected, third-party sources.

        The Israelis shoot (murder) unarmed (innocent) civilians regularly and then claim that the civilians were presenting an imminent danger, especially at illegal checkpoints. You (“anonymous Naftush”) seem like just the sort of person who would believe the guy in the uniform with a hot gun in his hand, standing over a dead murdered civilian. Just go on and believe whatever the propaganda machine tells you.

  7. JLewisDickerson on January 7, 2018, 9:25 pm

    RE: “Gaza’s airport, once a symbol of statehood, is now a wasteland”

    MY COMMENT: Wasteland or not, I think it would be a great location for a film or TV series involving post-apocalyptic zombies (similar to the The Walking Dead).

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