GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The helicopter of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is back in the air. It's not flying. It's attached to ropes and sitting on a steel platform for the purpose of military exercises organized by the Security and Protection Service of the Ministry of Interior, which is still led by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The helicopter, which was examined up-close by Al-Monitor, is in the middle of the Ansar security compound, west of Gaza City. Part of this compound used to be an airfield, which Arafat’s white helicopter used to land on. Today, the helicopter is an empty shell, with no instruments or engine. The helicopter’s body is painted in a military-style gray/black camouflage pattern, the same pattern used for the uniforms of the Security and Protection Service.
One security officer working in the compound told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “This is the only helicopter that remains of the three helicopters, after the occupation bombed the airfield during the era of the National Authority and the second intifada.”
Israelis bombed Arafat’s airfield Dec. 2, 2001, destroying the airfield, the aircraft and the fuel tanks.
Pilot Mahmoud al-Kazzaz, a former crew member for Arafat’s aircraft, told Al-Monitor that the helicopter that survived, used by the Security and Protection Service, was not on the airfield when Israeli warplanes bombed, so it was spared. It deteriorated with the passage of time, however.
Kazzaz said that Arafat’s aircraft used to be a symbol of sovereignty, which is why Israel decided to bomb them, adding, “Whenever we moved by aircraft, we had to inform the Israeli side that we were traveling from Gaza to the West Bank or Jordan or elsewhere. [The Israelis] used to demand things that President Abu Ammar was against. Once, they asked us to land in a settlement, but President Arafat refused and we proceeded and landed in Gaza.”
Kazzaz said that Arafat’s aircraft began flying in 1997 and that Arafat once refused an Israeli proposal that the airfield be situated in Kalandia village. Arafat wanted the main airfield to be in Gaza City to give Gaza a symbol of openness to the world, especially after the isolation that Gaza suffered from for several years.
“The longest trip I had with the late President Arafat was one from Russia to Gaza on this helicopter escorted by a Russian aircraft," Kazzaz added. "And of course there were stops on the way. The trip took several days, and the Russian flight crew, including the pilot, was always with us.”
Of the helicopter being currently displayed for the purposes of training in the Gaza Strip as [people] climb ropes to reach it, he said, “I’m not against it. I feel happy that its symbolism is being respected.”
In May, the Security and Protection Service in the Gaza Strip restored and set the helicopter in place order to use it during a military graduation ceremony. The helicopter will remain indefinitely as a memorial that most people in Gaza can see as they pass through al-Bahr Street, west of Gaza City.
The symbolism of this helicopter is linked to that of Arafat. Umm Mustafa, 54, told Al-Monitor while sitting on the beach in front of the helicopter, “I felt for a moment that Arafat’s [spirit] is inside [the helicopter]. I got goose bumps as I recalled the days he entered Gaza for the first time,” in 1994 following the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord.
Mahmoud Abu Ghulwa, a 29-year-old filmmaker, said, “I remember in 1997 when the school took us on a trip to the Ansar airfield to see the aircraft. I was 13 years old. I was thrilled. It was the first time I had seen a helicopter, and I remember that I tried to hold the outer door handle. Then the teacher slapped me on the back of my neck to punish me.”
Abu Ghulwa said that displaying the helicopter in this way brings back memories of that stable phase in Gaza’s life, but he also said, “However, at the same time, when we see the helicopter now in its military paint, we realize how Gaza has changed.”
A source at the Interior Ministry told Al-Monitor that “the helicopter was neglected, and [the ministry] decided to display it after restoring it and changing its color. But of course without flying it,” pointing out that the helicopter has so far only been used in the exercises during the graduation ceremony.
Bassam al-Munsi, who was one of Arafat's pilots, is upset that the civilian helicopter was converted into a military symbol, stressing that the display of the helicopter, which is at the end of the old airfield, shows that it is discarded and does not respect the symbolism of Arafat as a resilient leader at all.
Munsi misses seeing the helicopter flying in the air. “We haven’t flown in about 15 years. President Arafat was besieged in the Muqata building in Ramallah city while the helicopters were destroyed. I felt sad seeing the airfield being burned and turned into a waste dump,” he said.
Israeli helicopters often hover over the skies of Gaza, but this is the first time that Gazans see one on their land as a souvenir of a past era free of missiles.
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