Palestine Pulse

Is Qatar's Gaza airport plan a step too far?

Article Summary
Qatar’s ambassador to the Palestinian territories recently revealed that he has discussed with Israel the idea of building an airport in besieged Gaza.

Qatar's proposal for an airport in Gaza is still up in the air, but here on the ground it has generated strong opinions. Where the Qataris see economic benefits for Gaza, others see the nefarious hand of US President Donald Trump.

Mohammed al-Emadi, Qatari ambassador to the Palestinian territories and head of Qatar’s Gaza Reconstruction Committee, spoke on Dec. 10 to the Palestinian news agency Sawa about Qatar's latest projects in Gaza, including the possibility of building an airport.

“Qatar has asked Israel about building an airport in the Gaza Strip under Qatari security supervision, so that planes can take off from Gaza to Doha and from there to anywhere in the world,” Emadi said. “Israel offered to give us an airport within its borders, but we refused, and we will reiterate our demand. Our goal is to find a means of transportation for Palestinians, the same as citizens in any other country in the world that has an airport and land ports.” Emadi added that the airport would be under full Qatari supervision and security. Al-Monitor attempted to contact Emadi, but his office said he had nothing to add to his previous statements. 

Perhaps waiting for the Israelis to respond, Emadi has not revealed the proposed airport’s location or cost or indicated whether he has consulted with the Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank and has imposed sanctions on Gaza to try to force Hamas to relinquish control over the territory or form a unity government to administer it. Qatar, the biggest financial contributor to Gaza, has so far managed to maintain relations with Israel, Hamas and the Fatah-led PA.

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A Palestinian official in Gaza who is close to Emadi told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “Qatar’s Gaza airport project aims to help the Palestinian economy. It will allow Gaza to receive foreign aid and will help create a free economy.”

Maher Tabbaa, public relations director at Gaza’s Chamber of Commerce, citing an additional benefit, told Al-Monitor, “Gaza will gain from the airport since economic delegations will be able to arrive freely from abroad, and our delegations will be able to travel to conclude business deals and improve the economic situation in the Strip, as long as the Israeli siege is lifted.”

A number of Palestinian officials have weighed in on Emadi's statements. Mounir al-Jaghoub, media officer for Fatah, told the newspaper Donia al-Watan on Dec. 10, “The Gaza airport project means that Gaza will be isolated from the Palestinian entity, as [the project] helps implement [Donald Trump's] deal of the century [for Middle East peace]. On the deal’s agenda is separating Gaza from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Emadi could have [instead] worked on establishing a crossing between Gaza and the West Bank to connect the Palestinian peoples, not building an airport that would completely isolate Gaza.”

Also speaking to Donia al-Watan the same day, was Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who described the Gaza airport project as an unacceptable Qatari intervention. “Qatar’s interference … constitutes an attack on Palestinian sovereignty and pushes Hamas to get involved in the deal of the century and reject reconciliation with Fatah. The airport will further deepen the Palestinian division. We consider that Qatar should instead work to end the Israeli occupation and establish the Palestinian state.”

Abdallah Abdallah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council and chairman of the Political Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, also saw the hand of the United States in the airport project. “Emadi and the US envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, are two sides of the same coin,” he told Al-Monitor. “Both are doing the best they can to implement the [US peace plan] and separate the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. Qatar’s airport project serves this specific purpose. The PA does not see itself as part of this project.”

According to such views, the “separation” of Gaza from the West Bank refers to attempts to make it able to stand alone, thus killing off the Palestinian national movement, which is believed to be the crux of Trump's yet-to-be-announced peace plan. Thus, Qatar, through its financial assistance to Gaza, is viewed as complicit in the plan.

Offering a somewhat different, but nonetheless negative perspective on Qatari actions, Waleed al-Awad, a member of the political bureau of the socialist Palestinian People's Party (PPP), charged in a Dec. 10 Facebook post that with the airport project, the emirate was treating Gaza like a Qatari protectorate. He declared Emadi unwelcome.

Meanwhile, there has only been radio silence from Hamas. A Hamas official who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, said, “We prefer to remain quiet about this subject [for now]. The movement has yet to come out with a clear position on the issue.” Hamas spokespeople declined to speak to Al-Monitor on the issue or explain why.

Hamas might prefer to remain silent until it receives more details about the project from the Qataris, or maybe it is simply deferring to the Qataris because they are the one's pushing and potentially funding the project. The PA has nothing to do with the airport in Gaza, since for all intents and purposes, it has no control over Gaza. PA officials believe, however, that the airport could harden the status quo and eventually lead to a permanent separation.

Ibrahim Habib, a security studies professor at the Management and Politics Academy in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Besieged Gaza needs an outlet to the outside world through an airport. It's a humanitarian requirement. I don't think Hamas is against it, given that Qatar would supervise the airport — although the management details remain unknown. This means Hamas could not smuggle weapons on planes. Fatah is opposing this project simply to keep after Hamas and keep Gaza under siege.”

In November 1998, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat opened Gaza International Airport, which went on to operate for three years. Israeli aircraft destroyed it in 2001 after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. It was later used as a field for grazing sheep and as a landfill.

In June 2017, Israeli Communications Minister Yisrael Katz released a video about his idea for the construction of an artificial island off the coast of Gaza that would have included desalination plants, a power plant, a port and an airport. The project — intended as an alternative to Israel's blockade against Gaza — went nowhere due to opposition within the Israeli government, especially by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

To some observers, it seems likely the Qatari-proposed airport will suffer a fate similar to Katz's island. Saleh al-Naamy, an author and researcher of Israeli affairs who works with the London-based New Arab, told Al-Monitor, “It's difficult for Israel to accept an airport in Gaza because this would infer a reward to Hamas, which threatens the current Israeli government. Although Israel is making every effort to prevent war with Gaza, this doesn't mean it wants Hamas to stand on its two feet and have an airport and a seaport.”

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Adnan Abu Amer heads the Political Science and Media Department of Umma University Open Education in Gaza, where he lectures on the history of the Palestinian cause, national security and Israel studies. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University and has published a number of books on the contemporary history of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also works as a researcher and translator for a number of Arab and Western research centers and writes regularly for a number of Arab newspapers and magazines.

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