Project Unified Assistance (PUA) is a US-based humanitarian nonprofit organization advocating to establish a UN operated and regulated airport in the Gaza Strip.
Gaza deserves an airport of its own, and this is how it can work
972 Magazine - By Oren Kroll-Zeldin
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.
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.
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 countries on the Mediterranean
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.
Gaza Airborne Again?
Middle East Institute - By Ahmed Alkhatib
Link to full analysis below
A recent United Nations report warned that the Gaza Strip might become “uninhabitable” by 2020 for its 1.8 million residents. Serious changes must be implemented as soon as possible to reverse the coastal enclave’s de-development. Additionally, the World Bank warned in May of this year that Gaza’s economy is on the verge of collapse and that youth unemployment is the highest in the region at 60%. After years of war, destruction and poverty, an airport for functional purposes could help accelerate Gaza’s reconstruction and re-development process. It would also relieve Gazans’ chronic inability to travel in and out of the Strip in an effective and safe manner.
Currently, access to the Strip is severely restricted via three crossings: Erez and Kerem Shalom with Israel for passengers and goods respectively; and Rafah with Egypt for passengers. People desperately needing to get in and out of the coastal enclave have largely been unable to use the Erez and Rafah crossings due to security-centered restrictions and the politicized nature of their operations. The Kerem Shalom crossing has barely kept up with Gaza’s large demand for critical and consumer goods as well as materials for infrastructure development. Gaza’s International Airport sits in ruins while negotiations for establishing a seaport as part of the Oslo Accords were never completed. (Recently, some ideas were being explored regarding a floating seaport or a naval corridor connecting Gaza with Cyprus.)
An airport alone cannot overturn Gaza’s access and transportation challenges. The 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access between Israel and the Palestinian Authority laid out a vision for how to sustainably improve access in and out of the Gaza Strip “to promote peaceful economic development and improve the humanitarian situation on the ground.” In addition to calling for negotiations on the establishment of an airport to be conducted, it stipulated that a safe passage should be established between Gaza and the West Bank, the construction of a seaport should commence, and the Rafah crossing should be open.
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 for critical materials to support the healthcare, education, and agricultural sectors, as well as establishing an opportunity to export limited quantities of Palestinian goods to external markets.
Alkhatib to Mladenov: The airport is a core and real issue in Gaza
Project Unified Assistance (PUA), a non-governmental organization based in the United States that is “advocating for the establishment of a United Nations-operated and regulated airport in the Gaza Strip” responded to a statement by Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N.’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, regarding the Gaza Airport issue.
Through written remarks, the organization’s Founder and Director, Ahmed Alkhatib, stated that “establishing and operating an airport in Gaza will help in the stabilization of the coastal enclave and will create mutual trust between Palestinians and Israel, and that in turn will contribute to implementing tangible improvements in the lives of people in the Strip.”
On Saturday, Mladenov said that residents of Gaza need jobs and hope more than a harbor and an airport, in reference to recent comments by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's defense minister, regarding Israel’s willingness to approve the establishment of an airport, a seaport, and industrial zones if the Strip’s rulers stop aggressive actions such as firing rockets and digging tunnels.
The U.N.’s Middle East envoy explained that people in Gaza had more pressing concerns and said “yes, it’s important to have an airport and a seaport in Gaza, but I don’t want us to be distracted by that from resolving the real issues that we face today,” adding that “people have lost hope and that life is gone and this is what makes Gaza more dangerous and more explosive.”
In response, Alkhatib stated that “the airport is actually a core component of the reconstruction process and will facilitate the transportation of needed quality medical and humanitarian devices, equipment, and supplies, and will provide many opportunities for employment, mobility, and hope amidst the desperation.” He elaborated: “it also goes without saying that an airport or a seaport are not the only actions needed to address the urgent needs of desperate civilians in Gaza, especially when it comes to water, electricity, unemployment, health care, education, and socio-political stability.” Nevertheless, and despite that, Alkhatib strongly believes that implementing PUA’s proposed U.N. operated and regulated airport in Gaza (based on relevant historic and contemporary precedents) in the al-Mawasi area of Khan Yunis (on the southern coast of the Strip) will address a significant component of the people’s suffering due to their inability to travel freely in and out of Gaza.
Alkhatib expressed hope that the U.N. will work with relevant parties, especially Israel, to explore ways for implementing the proposed humanitarian airport expediently and without the need for a comprehensive political resolution between Palestinians and Israelis.
Furthermore, he added that if the U.N. is interested in focusing on “real” issues that are more pressing, per Mladenov’s remarks, the Organization could develop and execute several measures aimed at expediting Gaza’s development process such as reforming or replacing the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) to scale up the rebuilding of destroyed homes and relieve Palestinian contractors and companies from excruciatingly demanding and taxing compliance requirements.
As for Lieberman’s remarks, Alkhatib believes that although the minister’s statements to a Palestinian newspaper in recent weeks contained explicit threats to Gaza, they demonstrate a strategic shift in how the Israeli military establishment wants to deal with the coastal enclave. “Instead of talking about completely disarming Gaza before major development can take place, as has been the case in the past, the focus now is on the two most pertinent threats to Israel: the rockets and the intricate tunnels that have been dug under Israel’s border with the Strip.” Alkhatib believes that the change in Israeli attitude will make it possible to implement PUA’s proposed U.N. airport in the near future, as the new pragmatic formula for Gaza entails “stability in exchange for re-development.”
In recent months, the Middle East Institute published a policy paper by Alkhatib titled “Gaza Airport: Stabilizing the Strip with Humanitarian Aviation” in which he presented his organization’s proposal to establish a U.N. airport in the Strip. The paper states that doing so ‘will allow for the conducting of a humanitarian air operation and will remove barriers to people’s freedom of movement.’ The analysis explained that for decades, the U.N. has decisively and effectively participated in humanitarian air operations in countries and areas suffering from conflict and natural disasters. It is noteworthy that during the 1950s and 1960s, Gaza had an airport which was run by the U.N. The facility allowed for the transportation of cargo to and from the Strip, and facilitated the movement of local Palestinian passengers who took weekly flights to limited destinations such as Lebanon and Cyprus.