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Palestinians Open New Airport

November 24, 1998

DAHANIEH, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Taking a major step toward statehood, the Palestinians today opened Gaza International Airport, their first gateway to the world.

An Egypt Air plane was the first to land on the desert tarmac in the southern Gaza Strip, arriving at 8:30 a.m. Palestinian Cabinet ministers stood excitedly on tiptoes along a red carpet on the airfield as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat walked toward the plane to greet the first arrivals.

``This is one of the statements of sovereignty,″ Finance Minister Mohammed Nashashibi said proudly.

Israel, however, will still have a role in operating the airport. It will monitor arriving passengers and cargo and will have the right to keep travelers or goods out if it considers them a danger to Israeli security. Disputes over security arrangements delayed the airport opening for more than two years.

Today, Israeli and Palestinian security agents approached the Egypt Air jet together and collected the passports of the Egyptian passengers, including Cabinet ministers and comedian Adel Imam, in white bags for stamping by a Palestinian official.

The $75 million airport will provide a boost to the troubled Palestinian economy, permitting the export of Palestinian flowers and farm produce that until now were shipped out via Israel, often with difficulties and delays.

The airport also will make it easier for Palestinians to travel abroad. Until now, Palestinians needed permission to enter Israel and fly out of Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv. The other option was to travel by land to Jordan and catch flights there.

Palestinians living in the West Bank will still need a special permit to cross Israel into Gaza to get to the airport. Travel is expected to become easier once a land route between the West Bank and Gaza opens next month.

For the time being, Israel’s government does not permit Israelis to use the Palestinian airport, citing security reasons.

However, Shmuel Rechtman, chairman of the regional council of the Negev Plateau, an area in Israel that borders Gaza, said he believed that within a year, Israeli farmers would use the new airport to export most of their flowers and produce to Europe.

``Economic realities are much stronger than any law,″ he said.

The opening of the airport was negotiated during last month’s U.S.-sponsored Mideast summit near Washington. As part of the peace accord, Israel also withdrew troops in the northern West Bank last week and released 250 Palestinian prisoners.

A Palestinian industrial park between Gaza and Israel is to open next month, while Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a Palestinian seaport in Gaza continue.

Gaza International’s Oriental style includes graceful arches and elaborate tiles imported from Morocco. The airport has one passenger terminal, a VIP lounge and a two-mile-long runway. A 4-foot-tall poster of Arafat was attached with masking tape to the walls of the control tower.

A total of seven flights were scheduled to land today, including an Israeli plane chartered by the European Union envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Moratinos.

Palestine Airlines, with a small fleet that includes one Boeing 727, will begin direct flights to Jordan, Egypt and Morocco next week.

On Wednesday, Arafat’s presidential plane was scheduled to leave for Paris on his first flight from the airport. Until now, Arafat has had drive to Egypt and fly from there.

In the first weeks, airport operations will have to improvise. The control tower has no controls, the check-in counter has no computers, and the runway lacks flood lights.

Fayez Zeidan, the head of the Palestinian Civil Aviation Authority, said Israel has been holding up the equipment for more than a year and is demanding $630,000 to release it.

Other gear such as X-ray machines and electromagnetic equipment were being inspected for safety standards, Israeli officials said.

Portable control equipment in a van guided today’s flights. Passengers will be checked in at the Rafah border crossing, a 10-minute bus ride away. And until the flood lights arrive, there will be no night flights.

Despite its shortcomings, many Palestinians consider the airport a big step toward independence.

``Now we will be able to travel without the Israeli procedures that we usually must go through,″ said student Khaled Salmeh, who plans to fly to Saudi Arabia next month for a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

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