Opening of Gaza airport gives Palestinians a boost

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JERUSALEM — The Palestinians, who expect to gain momentum toward independence with Tuesday's opening of Gaza International Airport, are already planning to build another airfield — this time in the West Bank.

"We are planning to make a strip in the West Bank within a year," said Capt. Salman Abu Halib, the Palestinian Authority's head of civil aviation. The location has not been determined.

Under a crystal-blue sky, five planes inaugurated the Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip this week.

An Egyptian plane was the first to land Tuesday, carrying several of the country's film stars.

The European Union's Middle East envoy, Miguel Angel Moratinos, flew in on a chartered plane from Ben-Gurion Airport. It was navigated by an Israeli crew "to prove that I am not one-sided in favor of the Palestinians," he said.

Other flights came from Morocco, Jordan and Spain, a major contributor to the $75 million airport.

The future of the peace process is still unclear, and a great deal of mistrust still exists between the Palestinians and Israelis. But after 18 months of deadlocked peace talks, the opening of the airport came as welcome news for the Palestinians in Gaza.

And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat knew that many Palestinians, tired of drawn-out negotiations and a lack of tangible results, needed this taste of independence. He did his best to provide it for them.

"The airport," a jubilant Arafat said at the ceremony, "will pave the way to Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine. Some say that day is distant but we see that it is close."

There is no doubt that the airport in Dahaniyeh, a small village in the southern Gaza Strip, means a lot to Palestinian self-esteem. But it also provides more practical benefits.

The airport, with its arches and tiles imported from Morocco, will provide greater freedom of movement for Palestinians, who depended until now on flying through Israel or Jordan to travel abroad.

Perhaps more importantly, the airport will also make it easier for Palestinian exports, mostly flowers and agricultural produce, which until now depended on Israeli good will.

One of the major obstacles in the two-year-long negotiations over the airport was the Israeli insistence that the Jewish state would have total security control over incoming and outgoing flights, passengers and goods.

According to the agreement that was finally reached, Israel continues to control the airspace and can shut down the terminal whenever it wishes. The Israeli controllers in the terminal will be behind one-way mirrors, but they will be there, watching who comes in, who is leaving, and what products come and go.

Israeli workers will be "invisible" to the public, just like they are at the Rafah crossing and Allenby Bridge, where Israeli personnel work behind screens.

Nevertheless, Israel has barred its own citizens from using the airport, citing security considerations. But Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said this week that the situation may soon change.

The airport is still far from complete. There are no computerized check-in counters in the terminal, the control tower is still without electronic equipment, and the two-mile-long runway cannot function after dark because of a lack of floodlights. But Palestinian officials promised that it would only be a matter of days before the airport was fully operational.

Nor can all passengers get to the airport easily. Until a safe-passage route linking Gaza and the West Bank is opened next month, West Bank residents will need a special permit to cross Israel to get to the airport.

Palestinian Airlines, with a small fleet that includes a Boeing 727, is scheduled to begin direct flights to Egypt, Morocco and Jordan next week. It is also expected to provide direct flights soon to the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina.

This week Arafat himself flew from Dahaniyeh to France, for a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac.

Now that the Palestinian airport is a fait accompli, the two sides will concentrate on the next stages of the Wye agreement signed last month.

Next on the agenda is the establishment of safe-passage routes between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The southern route linking Gaza and Hebron is expected to open soon. The northern route to the West Bank town of Ramallah is still subject to negotiation.

A Palestinian industrial park between Gaza and Israel is to open next month, and negotiations continue on the creation of a seaport in Gaza.

Even as some Palestinians rejoiced, others protested the way the agreement reached last month was being implemented.

Upset at the fact that some 100 of the 250 prisoners released last week were criminals, some Palestinians staged demonstrations in front of the Gaza residence of Abu Mazen, Arafat's second-in-command, calling him an "American agent." Indeed, some families of prisoners held a small protest at the airport itself.

But this was just a minor part of the ceremony. Crowds at the inauguration threw flowers as the pilot of Arafat's plane emerged.

Arafat himself was received by a guard of honor of Palestinian policemen, and a uniformed band played national tunes.

As Palestinian policemen hugged each other, waving their AK-47 rifles in the air, airport workers and senior officials held each other's hands and danced in celebration.