Since 2007, the quality of life for the people of Gaza has sharply deteriorated as a result of the Hamas takeover and the subsequent imposition of a blockade by Israel. The consequences of sealing Gaza off from the rest of the world primarily impacts the lives of civilians in the Strip. Semi-permanent border closures mean that hundreds of thousands of people cannot travel freely to study abroad, receive medical treatment, conduct business, visit family, or go on vacation.
The economic toll has been disastrous for Gaza’s local economy, with unemployment reaching as high as 40%. Desperation and radicalization increased as a result of the population’s isolation from the rest of the world.
Gaza’s infrastructure is in catastrophic conditions due to:
Lack of steady electricity access
Depleted clean water resources
All-time high sewage pollution
Little progress towards building new facilities that can increase capacity and address resource shortages.
THE ISRAELI PERSPECTIVE
Since the 2014 summer war, there is an increased awareness in Israeli civilian and intelligence circles that the situation between Israel and Gaza must be approached differently by Israel. It is widely recognized that after almost 10 years of the blockade on Gaza and multiple rounds of deadly fighting between the IDF and armed factions in the Strip, Israel’s strategy toward Gaza is not making Israel safer.
The most recent example of this recognition was evident in statements made by the chief of the Israeli Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Directorate, General Herzl Halevi. While addressing the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he said “the humanitarian condition in Gaza is progressively deteriorating, and if it blows up, it’ll be in Israel’s direction.” He agreed with the UN’s report that warned Gaza would become uninhabitable by 2020 if its economy is not quickly strengthened.
The former head of the Israeli National Security Council, retired Major General Giora Eiland, also acknowledged in 2015 that for the sake of Israeli security, Gaza should be allowed to rebuild. He advocated the establishment of a seaport in Gaza with strong international mechanisms to prevent the facility from being misused and abused by Hamas or other groups.
During the 1950s and 60s, the UN operated a small airport in the Gaza Strip to support UN Emergency Force active in Gaza at the time. The facility also transported humanitarian cargo and provided weekly passenger flights from Gaza to Lebanon and Cyprus, among other destinations. This aviation history provides a significant precedent to contemporary efforts to bring UN aviation to Gaza.
THE PUA PROPOSAL
Project Unified Assistance advocates for a humanitarian airport that fulfills strictly utilitarian needs be implemented under UN supervision to bring humanitarian aviation to Gaza. Whether it is done through UNHAS or by establishing a dedicated agency to run the facility and flight operations, we believe such an airport can be implemented in ways which address the complex and nuanced needs of all parties involved.
A new airport in Gaza requires a fresh approach to achieve utilitarian gains for people in the Strip. PUA suggests:
A new location away from Egyptian and Israeli borders to provide safe routes (away from military conflict zones) for incoming and outgoing flights over the Mediterranean Sea.
A limited number of destinations, accessible via the Mediterranean Sea, to regional hubs to allow passengers to travel anywhere in the world.
The facility should be secured by a tight security perimeter and include a residential complex for operations staff who come from outside of Gaza.
The Palestinian Authority would have significant representation in the facility to assist with passport and visa acquisition matters of Palestinians.
Israel’s security would be guaranteed by the UN through a variety of verifications-based measures to ensure that the facility is for civilian use only.
Egypt would be relieved of negative humanitarian consequences of closing the Rafah border due to terrorism in Northern Sinai.
Some may question the feasibility of an airport in Gaza given the territory’s current political, security, and economic hardships. Yet it is precisely those conditions that make an internationally-run airport necessary. Since its 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Israel has been eager to disentangle itself from the Strip’s affairs, stressing security-related interests. This means that an airport which serves the Palestinians in Gaza, monitored by an international authority to ensure appropriate use of the facility, should be acceptable to the Israeli military and political establishments.
Hamas has demonstrated flexibility toward proposals for having either a seaport or an airport under international management in the Gaza Strip. In response to this proposal, several Hamas leaders, including Khalil al-Hayya, Ziyad al-Zaza, and Yahya Moussa, have expressed openness to the concept. In February 2016, Khalil al-Hayya stated that the “[Hamas] movement” wants international management and supervision of the airport, and that “no illicit items or weapons would be smuggled through the facility.”
To hold Hamas accountable to its promises and neutralize any safety or security threats, regional players such as Qatar could prove vital in ensuring that the group does not interfere with the establishment and operation of the airport.