Thursday, December 14, 2006
The Israeli army has been accused of mindlessly destroying the terminal building at Gaza International Airport. A once pristine modern structure, which had come to symbolise Palestinian statehood, has been wrecked.
Before Israeli troops occupied the terminal this summer, its luggage carousel, restaurants, bank, duty free shops and other amenities were all maintained perfectly, ready for the day when the airport, which has been closed for five years, reopens.
There was no fighting in or around the terminal during the Israeli incursion into Gaza, so when the Israeli forces withdrew a few weeks ago Palestinian employees hoped they would find everything as they left it.
But instead they found pipes ripped up, roof tiles smashed, marble slabs broken and windows shattered. The fully equipped control tower had become a jumble of scrap metal.
Graffiti in Hebrew had been left in several places including the car park where an Israeli soldier had used a tank or combat bulldozer to scour the name "Amit" in 20 ft letters in the tarmac. Lamp posts had been knocked down like skittles. While nothing appears to have been looted, Palestinians seethed that an important national symbol had been deliberately destroyed.
The airport is the only one allowed by Israel in the occupied territories although it has been closed for flights since 2001. One early estimate suggests it will cost £8 million to repair this summer's damage.
"When I first came back after the Israelis left I began to cry," said Rassim Assadi, the chief of security at the airport. The terminal buildings show no evidence of fighting, but plenty of evidence that the Israeli army had recently been in situ.
Boxes for Israeli army ration packs littered the floor along with Israeli newspapers.
The control tower had obviously been used as a military headquarters and soil berms had been pushed up to protect its ground floor windows. Inside, four tills, probably from the terminal building shops, lay burnt out on the floor close to a McDonalds wrapper printed with Hebrew script.
David Shearer, the local head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the destruction appeared to have been "sheer vandalism".
"For the past six years Gaza airport has been maintained in a pristine condition by staff who turned up to work in spite of it not being opened," he said.
"Its reopening is part of discussions under the Agreement on Movement and Access signed by Israel last year. That hope has now been scuttled in what appears to have been an act of sheer of vandalism.
"Months of work and millions of dollars will now be needed before it can open."
Gaza International Airport has come to represent a barometer of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the Oslo peace accords, the airport was a symbol of hope. International aid money paid the £50 million construction costs.
President Bill Clinton attended the ceremonial opening and for more than two years Palestinian Airlines flew to Cairo, Ankara, Amman and elsewhere.
But when the second intifada — or Palestinian uprising — began in late 2000, Israel sent combat engineers to dig holes in the runway and blow up the radar. The planes moved to Amman.
The main terminal building, VIP hall and control tower were left untouched and for years 400 or so employees of the Civil Aviation Authority turned up for work each day, hoping the airport would one day reopen.
Those hopes lay in ruins yesterday along with the shards of glass and masonry littering the terminal floor.
A spokesman for the Israeli army was unable to comment.