After three years of wrangling, Israel finally permitted the opening of Gaza International Airport on 24 November, amid strong Israeli fears over security and the political capital being handed to the Palestinian Authority.

Gaza International Airport is currently equipped to handle 700,000 passengers a year although only $70 million of the final $250 million cost has been invested. When complete, it will be able to ship a large, though not as yet unspecified, volume of cargo. This is worrying officialdom in Israel. "If we don't start building a second airport, a great deal of our bulk shipping, including produce, will pass through Gaza," notes Dalia Mazori, chairman of the Environment Ministry.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is publicly unconcerned about the airport's cheaper handling charges. "I'm a big fan of competition. If this airport charges lower prices, it will be good for everyone," he says.

Netanyahu finally was forced to permit the opening of the facility at the trilateral talks held at the Wye Plantation in the USA last October. The Israeli government's main fear is that the airport will be used to ship weaponry to the Palestinian Authority (PA). A secondary worry is that the PA will exploit the airport for political goals, citing it as proof that a state is on the way.

The first point was somewhat allayed by security arrangements which allow Israeli inspectors, hidden behind two way mirrors, to examine luggage and passports. The PA also agreed to allow the Israelis access to the passenger lists of incoming and outgoing flights. All relevant passport information is relayed by computer to the border station at Rafiah. A passenger listed as a security risk can be held or deported.

But the PA has proved the Israelis right to be concerned on a political level. The terminal is built in the shape of the Shrine Of Omar in Jerusalem, a central political symbol for Palestinians. The airport code LLGV is deliberately different to Israel's, with the V symbolically standing for Victory. And PA chairman Yassir Arafat said at the opening ceremony that: "This airport is a historic step towards an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital."

A mob gathered just beyond the runways, with some demanding the release of relatives from Israeli prisons and others admission to the ceremony. In the end, the crowd overwhelmed the police and rushed onto the tarmac.

The PA stressed the upside of the airport, such as regular Palestinian commercial flights to Cairo, Amman and Jiddah. But the airport's grand opening was marred by the violence and the Israelis remain very anxious.

Source: Airline Business