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Gaza deserves an airport of its own, and this is how it can work

While an airport will not end the suffering in Gaza, it is an essential step to alleviate serious humanitarian concerns. Here’s how to do it.

By Oren Kroll-Zeldin

UN Boeing 767, Bangladesh. (photo:Shadman al Samee/www.jetphotos.net)

UN Boeing 767, Bangladesh. (photo:Shadman al Samee/www.jetphotos.net)

Recent wars, a crippling blockade, and poor governance have rendered Gaza an increasingly difficult place to live for its 1.8 million residents. Poverty, lack of access to food and other essential resources, and the inability to move freely create complex conditions of survival for those living in the coastal enclave. A recent World Bank report notes that Gaza has the world’s highest unemployment rate, and youth unemployment specifically is higher than 60 percent. At the present rate, the United Nations estimates that it would require “herculean efforts” for Gaza to remain inhabitable in the year 2020, and if the humanitarian situation is not addressed, the damage will be irreversible.

Ahmed Alkhatib, a Palestinian raised in Gaza City who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, knows the struggle in Gaza all too well. He has a bold humanitarian proposal that will help alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s inhabitants: build an airport in Gaza to be operated and regulated by the United Nations. Building this airport is the mission of Project Unified Assistance (PUA), a new U.S.-based humanitarian nonprofit organization founded by Alkhatib to promote the freedom of movement for the people of Gaza.

Alkhatib left Gaza in 2005 as a high school student to participate in the Youth Exchange and Study program, which was established after the September 11th attacks to create cultural bridges between the Arab and Muslim worlds and the people of the United States. He was one of only ten students selected out of thousands of applicants to receive the prestigious scholarship to participate in the fledgling program. After completing his junior year at a high school in Pacifica, California, a small city just south of San Francisco, Ahmed attempted to return home to Gaza through Egypt. Due to violence and border closures, he was stranded in Egypt for three months, not knowing if, when, and how he would be able to return home. He was eventually awarded a scholarship from a private high school in San Francisco to complete his studies so he returned to the Bay Area, where he has lived ever since.

Design Concept for the Proposed Airport in Gaza. (Courtesy of PUA)

Design concept for the proposed airport in Gaza. (Courtesy of PUA)

In 2007, Ahmed applied for political asylum status at a time when very few Palestinians were receiving asylum, which was granted a year later and started him on a path towards citizenship. He became a U.S. citizen in 2014, making it possible for him to achieve certain personal goals, but he has not been able to return to Gaza ever since he left home as a high school junior a decade ago. Ahmed has not seen most of his family since then, and has only seen his parents once, in Egypt in 2012.

His idea to build a UN-regulated airport in Gaza stems from his personal experiences and struggles with the freedom of movement, his love of aviation, and the very real conditions his family and friends face in their everyday lives. The airport project, which Alkhatib insists is non-political, provides a functional approach to a chronic problem in Gaza. In Alkhatib’s own words, “It may seem unlikely that Israel would approve constructing an airport as a standalone project and would only accept it as part of a comprehensive peace deal. However, exploring options to construct an airport in a speedy, ad-hoc manner may be the best way to jump-start Gaza’s recovery. Such an approach could also pave the way for more concrete measures aimed at long-term stability by providing a lifeline” to Gaza’s residents. To this aim, Project Unified Assistance has two key practical, implementable, and strategic goals.

First, the airport would be operated and regulated by the United Nations in order to transport both humanitarian aid and commercial goods and passengers. This would establish a transportation corridor to get passengers in and out of Gaza, support humanitarian relief efforts, and dramatically improve economic conditions. The UN operated an airport in Gaza in the 1950s and 60s, giving this project important historic precedent. Furthermore, Project Unified Assistance is not attempting to rebuild the old Gaza airport, which was an unsuccessful endeavor due to its impractical location. It is instead an innovative formula in a new and more suitable location. Any attempt to revive the old airport is doomed to fail based on a total shift in Gaza’s conditions since it was destroyed in 2002.

Proposed Flight Paths to Connect Gaza with Four Nations Overlooking the Mediterranean. (Courtesy of PUA)

Proposed flight paths to connect Gaza with four countries on the Mediterranean. (Courtesy of PUA)

Second, it would be a strictly humanitarian endeavor to create an independent travel mechanism allowing Gaza residents to enter and exit the territory without using Egyptian and Israeli crossing points. Gaza’s future lies not in negotiated long-term ceasefires or final status negotiations but in the possibility of its residents to move without the permission and regulation of Egyptian and Israeli authorities and for goods to enter the territory in an efficiently regulated and continuous manner. An inhabitable Gaza must be connected to the outside world in a way that does not involve its two neighboring countries.

PUA proposes that UN flights should take passengers to four countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea from which passengers can board connecting flights to their final destination. Each flight path would avoid the airspaces of Israel, Egypt, and Gaza’s regional waters. The airport thus turns Gaza’s “geographic curse” of being trapped between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea into a strategic location that doesn’t threaten Israel’s security or lift its blockade and encourages the development of infrastructure and the economy in Gaza.

While an airport is not in itself a panacea to the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the revival of its choked economy, it is an essential step to alleviate serious humanitarian concerns. While Alkhatib knows that the odds against the humanitarian airport are seemingly insurmountable, he understands that only herculean efforts like the one being undertaken by Project Unified Assistance can lead to the basic human right of freedom of movement, which can ultimately lead to peace, justice, and stability in Alkhatib’s native homeland.

Oren Kroll-Zeldin is adjunct professor in the Swig Program for Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco. He is also on the board of directors of Project Unified Assistance.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Gustav

      “The airport thus turns Gaza’s “geographic curse” of being trapped between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea into a strategic location that doesn’t threaten Israel’s security or lift its blockade…”

      …and an avenue for importing advanced military weapons. Why do fools think that Israel will just accept that?!

      Want to end the blockade? Sign a peace deal with Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • Mike

        Sign a peace deal? Fabulous idea. Under what terms?

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          Not the terms of the agressors who started this war nearly 100 years ago. Care to guess which side is that?

          Reply to Comment
          • Nathan Greenberg

            Zionists side of course.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Okey dokey we attacked the poor peace loving Arabs. Seeeeeesh, the lunatics are running the asylum.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            1. It’s way too simplistic to say “they started it, they attacked us, we were saints,” as your refrain would have it. It’s false. Pseudo-history. The Hundred Years War Fairytale. You have both been “the aggressor.” It is feel-good propaganda to say otherwise.

            2. Whoever started what, the positions of both sides have evolved. Life is now.

            3. “The terms” of the other side in this are so much a “concession” already that they have nothing more to give. As Noam Sheizaf has said.

            4. One makes peace with one’s enemies. They see you as their enemy. You see them as your enemy. This cannot possibly change until the ink is long dry on a final status agreement and life has gone on–and it will, the sky will not fall. They will never formally endorse the Zionist narrative. No one who really wants peace expects one side to endorse the other side’s ideology. It is never going to happen and anyone capable of basic tactical empathy would know that.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:”1. It’s way too simplistic to say “they started it, they attacked us, we were saints,” as your refrain would have it. It’s false. Pseudo-history. The Hundred Years War Fairytale. You have both been “the aggressor.” It is feel-good propaganda to say otherwise.”

            Which bit of the Palestinian Arabs rioted and indiscriminately murdered Jewish Palestinians after UN resolution 181 was announced is too simplistic to you Benny?

            BEN:”2. Whoever started what, the positions of both sides have evolved. Life is now.”

            Yea? And….?

            So now the Arabs have the right to dictate terms which we MUST accept but they don’t have to accept ANY of our terms?

            BEN:”3. “The terms” of the other side in this are so much a “concession” already that they have nothing more to give. As Noam Sheizaf has said. ”

            Utter nonsense. In fact it is a bare faced lie!

            BEN:”4. One makes peace with one’s enemies. They see you as their enemy. You see them as your enemy. This cannot possibly change until the ink is long dry on a final status agreement and life has gone on–and it will, the sky will not fall.”

            Nice slogan. Of course one cannot make peace with an enemy that does not REALLY want peace. Just ask Hamas what they want. Not peace, that’s for sure. And over 50% of Palestinian Arabs voted for Hamas in their last democratic elections so they cannot be ignored.

            But it is even worse than that. The PLO does not want peace either.

            BEN:”They will never formally endorse the Zionist narrative. No one who really wants peace expects one side to endorse the other side’s ideology. It is never going to happen and anyone capable of basic tactical empathy would know that.”

            Then why should we endorse what they want?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No one’s asking you to endorse their narrative. That’s the whole point. As for what “they want,” they want a lot more than they are settling for. You want a lot more than you are going to have to settle for. That’s the whole point of an agreement. Geez.

            Your propaganda trick is to sneak in the idea that “they are getting what they want” and you, poor victim, are not. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a lie.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            My poor propaganda victim?

            They [the Arabs collectively] want nothing less than the following. They are not settling for less (read it in the API) otherwise we would have peace by now and an end to the occupation…

            1. They want their “right of return”.

            2. They want East Jerusalem as THEIR capital.

            3. They want us to uproot several hundred thousand of our people from their homes and return to the 1949 armistice lines (the 1967 lines).

            4. They reject our terms for security arrangements and if we relent, it would allow them to commence arming themselves to their teeth in preparation for a new war against us, a war which Hamas brags about and whether you admit it or not, Hamas is the dominant force amongst Palestinian Arab society.

            5. And in return they offer us what? Not even recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people which is only a symbolic gesture.

            PS
            After this many years, The PLO did not even amend it’s charter which talks about Israel’s destruction and expulsion of most of it’s Jewish citizens. They promised to amend that charter in letters at the onset of Oslo. But they never kept that promise. Rabin insisted on it but he was ignored.

            Forget it, Benny-leh. There will be no peace with this generation of Palestinian Arab leadership. It is a wishful thinking illusion. They are nothing more than stand over merchants, like mafiosi who demand protection money in exchange for not burning your place down. But we need not pay. All we need to do is to make the price that they have to pay for attempting to harm us too high…

            We will just have to wait it out till your Palestinian Arab people and their leaders acquire some common sense and work it out that there is nothing they can do to reverse the existence of the Jewish state and that if they want better lives, they have to compromise.

            Reply to Comment
    2. thom

      I distinctly remmeber Bill Clinton landing Air Force One at the Gaza airport, a symbolic move over Israeli objections and quite the short flight to or from Ben Gurion or Cairo, wherever. Could that not be restored? (I assume the runway was shelled by Istraelis at some point). Good idea anyway.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Spencer

      Great article Ahmed! They deserve it more than anyone in the world! I will help you with this cause and any other cause to help promote the Palestinian people! You have my number to contact me! Lets get together SOON!
      I know you have the endurance and will-power to get this project going! This would be absolutely wonderful for the people there.

      SP

      Reply to Comment
    4. Rose Levinson, Ph.D.

      Thanks to Ahmed Alkhatib for his courage and determination. It’s a brilliant step forward, a ray of light in a situation likely to remain dark for some time. And thanks to Prof. Kroll Zeldin for his articulate, moving validation of these efforts.
      I add my affirmative support and my fervent hopes this airport can be made to happen.

      Reply to Comment