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Derelict Gaza airport becomes racetrack for cars, camels

Gazans have been racing their camels, horses and cars at the abandoned site of what once served as Gaza’s airport.
Palestinian jockeys compete during a local camel race held at the destroyed Gaza airport, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on October 20, 2019. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Gaza International Airport, east of Rafah governorate in the southern Gaza Strip, which once served as the gate of old Palestine and was destroyed in 2001, has been recently turned into a racetrack. 

After having been a dump for many years with garbage filling its runway, the airport-turned-racetrack opened its doors to dozens of owners of racehorses, camels and cars from across the Gaza Strip, and to citizens to enjoy the shows and races.

The airport was inaugurated on Nov. 24, 1998, in the presence of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, former US President Bill Clinton and other world leaders. 

It was built on an area of 2,800 dunums (692 acres) at a cost of $22 million, with funding from several countries. The airport had been operational for three years, but with the escalation of Al-Aqsa intifada events, Israel closed it permanently on Feb. 13, 2001. Later it was bombed and completely ravaged.

Since its destruction, the airport has been abandoned and no official authority has managed it ever since.

On Oct. 20, 2019, the airport area witnessed the first camel race in the coastal enclave, with the participation of some 20 camelids, sponsored by the Palestinian Olympic Committee. The race lasted about two hours, covering a 7-kilometer (4-mile) track.

Since then, the Palestine Equestrian Federation has been organizing weekly races. Meanwhile, amateur drivers occasionally race at the airport as well. 

Eid Abu Kosh, from the city of Rafah, takes part in the weekly car drifting shows, driving a BMW 530, manufactured in 2007. He made some modifications to his vehicle by changing the engine and tires for the races that include four-wheel-drive cars.

“Despite the amazing shows and the joy that they bring to the spectators, some of the drivers do not stick to safety and security measures such as fastening their seat belt or wearing a helmet, which put them at great risk and could cost them their lives if they ever lose control over their car,” Abu Kosh told Al-Monitor.

Issa al-Wawi, from the village of Shoka al-Sufi in eastern Rafah, participates in the camelids races.

“Breeding and caring for Arab camelids is a hobby I inherited from my father 12 years ago. It is a real Bedouin heritage that cannot be given up,” Wawi told Al-Monitor, stressing that he used to participate in camelids races organized by his tribe for several years.

Wawi said, “Interest in these types of races began with the first camel race that was held last year. This event is now attracting dozens of amateurs and citizens from areas close to Rafah, who come for entertainment.”

“Camels race over a distance of 1,000 meters [0.6 miles] and 1,200 meters [0.75 miles],” he added.

“Young camelids younger than three years old and weighing not more than 600 kilograms [1,323 pounds] need good training to be able to participate in the races. They also need to be in good shape, tall and fast, and have endurance, which are the characteristics of camels that are known for their wide chest and small hooves,” Wawi added.

Alaa Zheir, from the Brazil neighborhood in Rafah, regularly attends the races. He usually stands on the side of the sandy car tracks and enjoys the shows on the airport land, which had been overrun by debris, rubble and thorns for years.

“Every week my friends and I watch the horse and camelid races as well as car drifting taking place on a large terrain,” Zheir told Al-Monitor, noting that the races have become the No. 1 entertainment destination for many young people in light of the ongoing blockade on Gaza and the few entertainment spaces in the coastal enclave.

Zheir calls on the government to pay more attention to the horse, camel and car races, and to work on providing modern tracks where amateurs can practice these sports without any obstacles and where spectators can enjoy the different performances.

Khalil al-Akawi, from Tal-Sultan neighborhood in Rafah, told Al-Monitor, “I take my five sons to watch the different races and cheer for contestants despite the spread of the coronavirus. This rundown site was one of Gaza’s main landmarks.”

He added, “It is located in a remote area close to the Israeli border. Previously it was difficult to reach it as it was exposed to direct fire by the Israeli military towers surrounding the airport. Today the Palestinians have revived this landmark area by holding races. This is evidence that they are attached to their land, no matter the challenges they face."

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