Hamas wants Israel to allow Gaza airport
WILLIAM BOOTH AND CAROL MORELLO
The Islamist militant organisation Hamas, as well as the people in the Gaza Strip, want something big in exchange for a truce with Israel.
They want a seaport. And an airport.
They want movement between their seaside territory and the outside world.
"Everything is ready. We have the engineering studies, the business plans, environmental assessments, all that is needed. You just say the word," said Ziad Abid, the director general of the Gaza Seaport Authority in the Ministry of Transportation.
Plans for the seaport have been gathering dust for 14 years, Abid acknowledged Monday. "But now is the time," he said.
Gaza technically has an airport — Yasser Arafat International, named for the late Palestine Liberation Organization leader — but it was shut down in 2001, after Israel bombed the control tower. After three wars, the airfield now resembles a movie set for a disaster film. The last traffic on its cratered tarmac was the Israeli tanks that roared through two weeks ago.
On Monday (local time), as the first day of a three-day humanitarian cease-fire held, the Israelis and Palestinians resumed indirect talks in Cairo aimed at securing a longer truce.
There, both sides are listing their demands. Israel seeks the end of indiscriminate rocket fire and tunneling from Gaza into Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ultimately wants the Gaza Strip demilitarised. Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza want an end to the seven-year blockade of the enclave, open commercial and passenger crossings with Egypt and Israel, and the release of Hamas members jailed by Israel in recent military sweeps in the West Bank.
The Palestinians also keep talking about the sea and skies.
The opening of Arafat International in 1998 was a signal achievement for the nascent Palestinian state and was attended by Arafat, who stood beside President Bill Clinton and wept. For two years, the airport near the Egyptian border — its code GZA — was the hub for Palestinian Airlines and its fleet of three planes, which ferried passengers from Gaza to Amman, Damascus, Abu Dhabi and beyond.
The Israelis destroyed the control tower and radar station in 2001 after the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began. Later, the Israeli military severed the runway and again bombed the airfield facilities in 2009, 2012 and 10 days ago, during intense fighting after an Israeli officer was captured and killed during a mission to destroy Hamas tunnels.
Today, the arrivals and departures terminal at Arafat International, designed by Moroccan architects to resemble the facility at Casablanca, is barely standing. The facility has been bombed, shelled, riddled with bullets and finally stripped bare by scavengers. Even the asphalt for the tarmac has been peeled away, put to use paving roads elsewhere in the seaside enclave.
Ibrahim Abushaar has lived beside the airport for eight years. An Israeli tank recently plowed through his front yard. He remembers flying to Amman, Jordan, out of Arafat International a few months before it was destroyed.
"It was a fine airport, a beautiful airport," said the out-of-work painting contractor, who was pulling green beans from a garden with his sons.
Abushaar said he hoped that it would reopen someday.
"It would open Gaza to the world," Abushaar said. "There is nothing like having an airport."
Except, maybe, a seaport.
The official Israeli position is that Gazans should forget about cargo freighters and deepwater harbors. Israeli navy commandos intercepted a civilian vessel carrying a concealed Iranian shipment of arms to Palestinian militant groups based in the Gaza Strip in March.
But Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, said the seaport idea might not be as crazy as it sounds to many Israelis.
"The fear is that every ship comes loaded with weapons for Hamas," which controls Gaza, he said. But there are many ways to protect Israel's security, said Eiland, who noted that maritime traffic is some of the most closely monitored on Earth.
If Gaza had a port, Eiland said, Israel could require that all ships first dock in Italy, Greece or Cyprus, where the cargo could be inspected and manifests checked. Then the freighters could be escorted into Israeli waters.
The Gaza seaport could be operated by a third party and perhaps monitored by a reassignment of the European Union Border Assistance Mission, which oversees the Gaza-Egypt border.
"It is not enough to only use the stick. We should give Hamas and Gaza a good reason to stay quiet," Eiland said, adding that building a port would take several years. "And that could be several years of peace."
Abid, head of the Gaza Seaport Authority, said a French-Dutch consortium was beginning to build the harbor when the second intifada broke out, and Israel retaliated and stopped construction.
He spoke with enthusiasm about taking his pet project out of mothballs. A port would allow Gaza to export its agricultural products, cut flowers and furniture to Europe. He pointed out that a port could serve the West Bank and give Jordan a route to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Palestinian newspaper al-Risala recently reported that Turkey and Norway are prepared to build a seaport and operate it, and that Turkey has discussed the possibility with the Obama administration.
A Swiss human rights group, Euro-Mid Observer, recently published a report saying that while Gaza was digging its deepwater port, it could employ the small fishing harbor to quickly establish maritime trade.
Others have suggested that instead of a more permanent port, Gaza first be allowed use of a long floating pier, similar to some on the coast of Egypt.
"The point is that we want to control our own destinies and not be beholden to Israel and Egypt," said Hamed Jad, editor of the Gaza newspaper al-Ayyam. "We want to have sovereignty over our own movement."