Jun 06 2013

Did Kerry Offer Palestinians An Airport?

Published by at 10:30 am under Articles,Palestinian politics



By Daoud Kuttab

The Israeli website that broke the story is not well known, but the content was so appealing that Palestinians jumped all over it. The site, Debkafile, claims that US Secretary of State John Kerry offered to help the Palestinians build their long-awaited airport and to get Israel to turn over a large section of land that includes part of the Dead Sea. The US offer, reportedly the first in a series, aims to encourage the Palestinian leader to go back to face-to-face talks with the Israelis without the latter stopping settlements or defining the eastern borders of Israel.

The reason that the report from a totally unknown site has received so much attention, including from Palestine’s Maan News Agency, is because it touches a nerve among the movement-restricted Palestinians, especially those living in the West Bank. The only exit and entry from this landlocked area is the King Hussein (Allenby) Bridge, which is under the total control of the Israeli army. Even the partial control by Palestinian police that existed for a short period prior to 2000 has long been cancelled. All attempts to return the Palestinian police to the bridge, including the commitments in theRoad Map, have been rejected despite Palestinian security receiving high marks from the Israeli army for its ability to control the region.

Palestinians traveling in and out of the West Bank are totally at the mercy of the Israeli army, which among other things bans travel after 10 p.m. and restricts travel on Fridays and Saturdays. Palestinian travelers often have to stay an extra night in Jordan because of the restricted hours, and long delays are common during the summer months when many Palestinian families working in the Gulf and other places come to visit during school vacations. Efforts to open the bridge 24 hours have been rejected by the Israeli army, which considers its location a military area.

The Israeli airport authority, which took over the bridge’s administration in January 2013, has also failed to implement any major steps to ease the travel of Palestinians except for a renovation that included a shelter outside the terminal for Palestinians waiting in the hot Jericho sun.

One effort that also received press attention has been the Karama campaign calling for the end of the humiliating practices in what is called the Abdo bus terminal. Luggage of Palestinians is transferred in bulk by a truck that is parked at a location beyond the terminal, forcing passengers to change buses after completing their Israeli exit passport control. For years, East Jerusalem residents have also complained about the high cost of travel across the bridge. Bridge permits and exit tax cost in excess of $110 for each person.

The total sum of the frustration and cost of travel on the single border available to 3 million Palestinians has rarely received public attention by Palestinian officials, many of whom travel on the same border crossing with special permissions that allow them to skip the long queues. This VIP treatment for senior Palestinian officials reduces their waiting time and shelters them from the frustrations that ordinary Palestinians face. Politically, the agenda of Palestinian officials is so loaded with existential issues such as the future border of the state and settlement activities that such small issues as travel permissions get little attention.

In his strategic plans for a Palestinian state, former prime minister Salam Fayyad outlined the idea of a Palestinian airport near Jericho as one of the basic infrastructure projects that must commence work immediately. The location of the airport, like most of the areas in the Jordan Valley, is considered part of the so-called Area C and therefore under full Israeli security and civilian control. No action can be taken in these areas without Israeli permission. European Union officials have been pushing for years for Israel to ease its grip on Palestinian areas of development, especially in Area C.

It is unclear if in fact Kerry made such an offer or if he received Israeli approval for work to begin on a Palestinian airport. The previous Palestinian airport in Gaza — opened with such fanfare by former US president Bill Clinton — now lies in ruin after Israeli bulldozers violently tore up the runway in 2002 as a collective punishment to Palestinians.

Whatever the truth is about the secret offerings of the secretary of state, there is no doubt that the issue of freedom of travel is an important one for Palestinians that should be given priority with or without the return to direct talks.

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