Palestinian flight plan shelved on eve of first scheduled departure

An Arkia airlines plane at Ramon airport (Ronen Zvulun - Reuters)

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  August 21, 2022

Controversial plan to fly people from occupied West Bank to Turkey has been paused.

A controversial plan to allow Palestinians to fly to Turkey from southern Israel’s Ramon airport has been shelved on the eve of the first scheduled departure.

Israel’s airport authority announced earlier this month that Ramon in the Negev desert, near the Red Sea city of Eilat, would begin allowing Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to travel on Turkish-operated flights to Antalya and Istanbul from 22 August.

The proposal is believed to be part of a package of goodwill measures from Israel to the Palestinians unveiled to the US president, Joe Biden, during his visit to the region last month, reportedly offered on the condition that the Palestinians withdraw their charge of war crimes at the international criminal court.

However, on Sunday the Israel Airports Authority said in a statement that the plan had been paused and that an announcement would be made when a new date was set, the Times of Israel reported. The statement did not set out a reason for the pause.

Officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah had previously publicly rejected the plan, saying it had not been coordinated with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and bypasses the Palestinians’ right to a sovereign airport. Critics have said that Ramon, which opened in 2019, has struggled to attract international business.

“Israel failed to turn Ramon airport into an international terminal,” a Palestinian official told the Jerusalem Post. “Now, the Israelis are offering us something that didn’t work for them. This reminds me of the coronavirus vaccines, which Israel offered us because the expiration dates were nearing.”

Freedom of movement is one of the biggest problems facing people living in the occupied Palestinian territories. At present, those in the West Bank can only travel internationally through the Allenby Bridge (known as the King Hussein Bridge in Jordan) and then on to Amman. Allenby is often overcrowded, leading to hours-long waits in uncomfortable conditions.

In the blockaded Gaza Strip, most people who are given permission to leave travel to Egypt, driving for one or two days through the dangerous Sinai peninsula to reach Cairo.

With rare exceptions, only high-level Palestinian officials and family members are allowed to use Israel’s major international airport, Ben Gurion, near Tel Aviv.

Remarks attributed to a Palestinian ministry of transport source published in Palestinian outlets last week suggested the PA would fine or otherwise punish people who sought to use Ramon.

“The PA has no right to do or say anything about Ramon airport. They have permits and VIP cards so they and their families can travel through Ben Gurion, while we have to go to Jordan and spend one day there before the flight, and spend money,” a Palestinian critic of the PA said in a popular TikTok post.

“So do not sell us patriotism, and don’t say it is without coordinating with the PA. All the PA officials care about is their personal interests.”

Prior to the IAA’s statement being released many details remained unknown about the plan.

A consultant for Israel’s Arkia airline told local media that Palestinians would be issued a special permit from specific tourism offices in order to enter Israel, and would not be able to bring hold luggage.

All prospective passengers were to be searched at a checkpoint south of Hebron before being transferred to Israeli buses for a three-hour journey to the airport, he added.

Israeli media also reported that residents of Eilat, as well as the city’s leadership, were unhappy about the proposed arrangement, arguing they were not informed beforehand. The presence of Palestinians at Ramon poses a “security threat”, said the deputy mayor, Matan Beeri, adding: “We won’t let this happen.”

Jerusalem international airport, also known as Qalandia, opened in 1924 during the British mandate. It has been occupied by Israel since the six-day war of 1967 and was closed to civilian traffic in 2000, after the outbreak of the second intifada (Palestinian uprising).

Yasser Arafat international airport, serving the Gaza Strip, opened in 1998. It operated for two years before also closing as a result of the intifada.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian