The Middle East / September 2000
By Larry Luxner
GAZA CITY -- Gaza International Airport, inaugurated in November 1998 by Yasser Arafat as the gateway to a future Palestinian state, will soon get an air-cargo terminal -- with help likely coming from a Tel Aviv-based contractor eager to exploit the growing business ties between Israelis and Palestinians.
By world standards, the $100 million airport, located at the southern end of the dusty, crowded Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border, is definitely not in the big leagues -- despite its Islamic-inspired architecture and the intense publicity surrounding its opening.
According to Tawfik al-Hourani, the airport's head of international relations, Gaza handled only 90,000 passengers and 117 tons of cargo in 1999.
"We're talking about very small cargo operations," al-Hourani told The Middle East during a visit to the airport last month. "The main problem we have is Israeli security. We hope not to see any Israeli [soldiers] here in the future. Palestinians should have the right to fly anywhere they want."
At the moment, Gaza Airport's main client is Palestinian Airlines, which owns only three aircraft: one Boeing 727-200 donated by Saudi Prince Walid bin-Talal, and two Fokker-50s donated by the Dutch government.
"For the time being, we're using the Boeing for cargo since we don't have any dedicated cargo jets," said al-Hourani, adding that Palestinian Airways currently flies to Cairo, Amman, Doha (Qatar), Dubai, Larnaca (Cyprus) and Jedda (Saudi Arabia). The airport also receives flights from Royal Air Maroc, Egyptair, Tarom and Royal Jordanian.
Rajaie Daoudi, vice-president of Palestinian Airlines, says his company has signed an agreement with Royal Jordanian, which has agreed to carry Palestinian cargo from Amman to 43 destinations worldwide.
Beyond the airport's role as a symbol of Palestinian sovereignty, it has made life easier for those Palestinians seeking to travel abroad, since they no longer have to obtain permits to enter Israel in order to use Ben-Gurion Airport, just outside Tel Aviv. In addition, Gaza International opens up new possibilities for importing and exporting goods to and from nearby Arab countries, without expensive and time- consuming shipment via Israel.
Yet planes flying the blue-and-white colors of Israel's flag carrier, El Al, are nowhere to be seen at this airport -- not because the Palestinians don't want El Al here, but because Gaza is strictly off-limits to both Israeli travelers and exporters.
"The Israeli government has prohibited its citizens from using this airport -- a decision made by the Netanyahu administration -- because this airport is cheaper than Ben-Gurion," claims al-Hourani. "Everything is cheaper here -- labor, land, even the cost of the aircraft. There were many demands for Israeli businessmen to use this airport for cargo, but their government says no."
Pini Schiff, spokesman for the Israel Airport Authority, denies the ban on Israeli passengers and cargo at Gaza is a protectionist measure. "It's not a law, it's a decision taken by the former minister of defense. It has nothing to do with business."
Adds Avner Yarkoni, director-general of Israel's Civil Aviation Administration: "At the moment, it's prohibited -- because of security reasons -- for Israelis to use Gaza. Of course, there's a possibility this will change as relations develop between Israel and the Palestinians. Regarding cargo, it makes sense that it's cheaper, but nobody's putting pressure on me yet. I think the Israelis understand the situation. They're patient."
That patience may yet pay off. In March, the European Union announced it would invest $26 million to build an air-cargo terminal at Gaza International. The EU isn't giving the Palestinians the money, but is instead publishing an international tender so that the terminal -- which must be capable of transporting 60,000 metric tons of freight per year -- will be established as a completed work and as a European interest.
According to Tel Aviv daily Ha'aretz, Israel's Maman freight and unloading company hopes to win that tender, and is now in "advanced negotiations" with the Palestinian Authority not only on constructing the terminal, but also on possible Israeli-Palestinian collaboration in fields such as supplying data, guidance and strategic planning.
"We have the clear advantage of a connection with the Palestinians, both in building the terminal and in its operation by the Palestinians," Nehama Ronen, chairman of Maman, told Ha'aretz. "First, a Palestinian commercial terminal, at least in the first years, will have to be dependent on Israeli industry. That's why the ability to control what goes in and out of the terminal is very important. In a period of peace, Israeli exports will have a niche in the Gulf and other Arab states via the Palestinian terminal."
Maman currently transports 300,000 tons of cargo per year, said Ronen.
In addition to Gaza, the Palestinian Authority is planning a second airfield, to be located somewhere in the West Bank. The exact location hasn't been determined, but it would likely be near Jericho or Bethlehem, and would probably be geared more toward passenger than cargo traffic. Under terms of the peace accord signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1994, any venue would need to be worked out in discussions with Israel or face a veto.
For now, government-owned El Al says it isn't interested in Gaza Airport from a cargo standpoint, though from a passenger point of view it might be profitable. Despite the obvious security concerns Israelis might have flying to and from an airport inaugurated by Yasser Arafat -- whose PLO was involved in dozens of airline hijackings and other terrorist attacks during the 1970s and 80s -- cheaper airline tickets to their favorite European and Mideast destinations might sway them.
Whether El Al planes will ever take off or land at Gaza "depends on reciprocity, if the Palestinian Airlines would be authorized to fly to Ben-Gurion," said Yarkoni. "It takes time, but things are moving in this direction."