Revived Palestinian Airlines denied access to Palestine

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Monday, May 28, 2012

Palestine's national airline has resumed its services after a seven year absence, but on one condition: it will not be permitted to fly to or over Palestine.

Once hailed as a symbol of Palestinian ambition for an independent state, Palestinian Airlines is now a tiny operation, with just two 48-seat turboprop planes, two weekly flights and a borrowed hub in Egypt.

The airline had been a success in the late 1990s, with regular flights from Gaza International Airport flying tens of thousands of passengers a year to Middle Eastern destinations, with plans to extend services to Europe.

The Palestinian intifada, and Israel's subsequent violent crackdown, put a halt to the airline's development, with Israel destroying the Gaza airport and much of the Palestinian economy.

The airline was forced to move its base to El-Arish, an Egyptian coastal resort about 60kms from Gaza and seven years ago stopped flying altogether after its reservoir of passengers dried up.

But the airline resumed operations earlier this month, with biweekly flights between El-Arish and Marka Airbase in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

The new route means Gazans no longer have to travel to Cairo, some 350kms from their territory, to board planes.

Last Sunday, the Amman to El-Arish flight carried 27 passengers, and 44 were booked on the return trip later in the day. The flight takes an hour and 35 minutes, more than double the time needed for the direct route over Israel.

The airline will not, however, be able to fly to any parts of Palestine, with Israel denying the airline permission to fly over historical Palestinian airspace, Regional Director Azmi Samaan said.

Until last year, the vast majority of Gaza's 1.7 million residents were locked inside the territory due to an Israeli blockade on the strip and Egypt's complicity, which kept its Rafah crossing with Gaza shut.

After the ouster of US-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Rafah gradually reopened and Gazans are now able to travel, though restrictions remain, particularly for men under 40, who still require Egyptian security clearance.

Mustafa Abu Dan, a Palestinian civil servant, on Sunday bought four tickets at a Gaza City travel agency for a flight to Amman.

He said he was pleased to be saving time and money, but worried that changing political circumstances could again force the curtains to close on the national carrier.

"Rafah is the only gate for us to the world now, but still it's linked to the political developments in Egypt," said Abu Dan, 32. "I voice my hope to have our own airport again so we can travel without problems, like others."

"My hands were shaking when I bought the ticket...and it said the name of the carrier is Palestinian Airlines," said recent passenger Zuhair Mohammed, a 38-year-old teacher from Gaza.

(Al-Akhbar, AP)


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