Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can Gaza Now Create a Viable Economy?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Can Gaza Now Create a Viable Economy?

Article excerpt

The fleet of Palestinian airplanes - a total of four - is as grounded as the paperweight plane on Salman Abu Halib's desk.

The chairman of the Palestinian Authority's Civil Aviation Authority, Mr. Abu Halib says that for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza to have a real impact, Yasser Arafat International Airport must be rebuilt and open for business to allow for freer movement of goods and people.

"From our point of view, the Israeli withdrawal will not be worthy if the Palestinians cannot reopen the airport," Abu Halib says.

As Israel prepares for the final stage of the Gaza withdrawal, expected to be complete by Sept. 15, Palestinians and Israelis have yet to agree on key elements of the new Gaza economy - who controls the borders and what is allowed to come and go.

Palestinian officials want to control their own crossing points, to fly their own planes, and to make Gaza a port of call.

Israel, for its part, has agreed in principle to the construction of a Palestinian seaport, although no arrangements or protocol have been set yet.

But the airport, as well as the crossing points, is viewed as a much more delicate matter. Security officials fear that by opening access, Palestinian militants will find it easier to smuggle arms into the territories, and that members of international extremist organizations such as Al Qaeda could make inroads in a Palestinian- ruled Gaza of the future. An Israeli aviation official said that the airport was the subject of negotiations.

Israel has also proposed allowing a one-way flow of traffic from southern Gaza to Egypt at the Rafah Terminal. Wednesday, Israeli Cabinet ministers proposed new arrangements for the Gaza-Egypt border, raising the possibility that Israel would eventually agree to the movement of Palestinians under the supervision of foreign inspectors, without an Israeli presence. The plan still needs to be approved by the Israeli Cabinet.

Freedom to fly

Five years ago today, Palestinians with means were able to fly to local destinations in the Middle East. But the start of the second intifada, at the end of September 2000, violently halted seven years of shaky Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

By January 2002, amid cycles of bloodshed that shifted between Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military raids, the Israeli army had bombed the Palestinian air traffic radars and bulldozed the runway.

Now, Abu Halib is planning ahead. A new cargo terminal is being built with a $25 million donation from the EU, as well as a new passenger terminal funded by Japan. He says the PA would like to privatize both the airport and the airline, in order to raise money it simply doesn't have. But for anything to move forward, he adds, plans to reopen must be worked out with Israel.

"This is not a military airport," Abu Halib says. …

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