Humanitarian Aviation is a Pragmatic Option in Gaza

Irene Scott - AP, South Sudan / 2013.
UN McDonnell Douglas MD-83 (Irene Scott – AP) South Sudan, 2013

Whenever the Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz brings up his proposal to build an artificial island off the shores of Gaza and construct a seaport and critical infrastructure installations on it, many shrug the suggestion off and dismiss the concept as a pipe dream, myself included. The minister has been talking about this idea since 2011 and though there were references to an airport that could potentially be built on the island, the most recent discussions of the concept focused on a seaport and energy and water-desalinization plants which could address Gaza’s humanitarian and economic crises. Despite continued skepticism towards the plan and the lack of concrete political support for its implementation within the cabinet, Mr. Katz should be commended for thinking creatively about the difficult problems facing Gaza and for his perseverance in pushing this concept forward.

The minister said: “Israel doesn’t have the privilege of waiting. The situation in Gaza demands decisions, we are proceeding toward a humanitarian crisis or a new round of war or both.” Katz’ perspective is that providing an outlet for Gazans to the rest of the world would benefit the Palestinians as well as Israeli security and strategic interests. The plan calls for connecting the island to the Strip via a 3-mile long bridge to serve as an access valve that can be easily shut off when Israel feels the need to do so. Security would be maintained by international police to ensure appropriate use of the facilities. It is estimated that the island would cost over $5 billion USD and could take five years to complete. Katz alleges that this proposal has deep support within military and strategic circles in Israel. Regardless of the merits of the plan, it is a positive development that a powerful Israeli cabinet member is talking about strategic infrastructure projects such as a seaport and an airport for Gaza, despite Hamas’ continued reign over the Strip and despite the low probability that a comprehensive political resolution will be reached with the Palestinians to establish their own state, which would conceivably include a seaport and an airport.

Ministry of Transportation and Israel Ports
Ministry of Transportation and Israel Ports

Perhaps there could be a time in 10 or 20 years when an artificial island off the shore of Gaza would make sense to increase the size of the Strip’s limited landmass and provide creative economic development opportunities. But for the time being and with an impending catastrophe fast approaching, there is a feasible alternative which can address a chronic problem in Gaza, costs exponentially less money than an island, guarantees Israeli security needs, can be implemented expediently, and would conquer a specific problem facing the Strip in a compartmentalized, effective manner. Project Unified Assistance (PUA), an organization which I founded in 2015, has focused on developing a proposal that would address Gazans’ lack of freedom of movement. This problem causes a massive amount of suffering for the two million people living in the Strip. Whether it is students, patients, businesspersons, families, humanitarian workers, or others with critical needs to enter and leave Gaza, people’s inability to travel due to severe restrictions on movement via Israel and Egypt creates considerable misery for tens of thousands on a monthly basis and contributes to the Strip’s instability.

After years of poverty, wars, restrictions, and economic instability, the people of Gaza are truly exhausted and ready for an improvement in their conditions. Gazans have inalienable rights which they do not have access to due to circumstances over which they have no control. With desperation, poverty and radicalization on the rise, people need something positive that they would want to preserve and maintain.

Retired Major General Giora Eiland, former head of the Israeli National Security Council, wrote in a 2015 op-ed that, for the sake of Israeli security, the international community should let Gaza rebuild. He even went as far as advocating for the establishment of a seaport in Gaza, as long as a strong international mechanism is created to prevent the facility from being misused. A similar sentiment was expressed by several others in the defense establishment, including Major General Sami Turgeman, who believes that Hamas can be turned into a partner to maintain quiet, calm, growth, and prosperity in Gaza.

Gaza Airport Proposal (GAP)

After years of analysis and consideration, Project Unified Assistance was formed and its flagship product was launched: the Gaza Airport Proposal (GAP). The core principles of GAP are: (1) internationalize the management of an airport in Gaza as a transitional solution for five to ten years, after which Palestinian sovereignty over the facility could be possible; (2) choose a more suitable location that addresses security and technical problems which plagued the old location of Gaza’s destroyed airport; (3) start the implementation with a simple version whereby a few inbound and outbound daily flights are commenced, with the primary focus being passenger movement, and subsequent expansion of the facility contingent upon its continued successful operation; (4) turn the airport into a beacon of hope in the midst of suffering and despair and use it as a catapult to propel further development efforts and strategic projects that improve the situation in Gaza.

The idea is that the airport should fulfill strictly humanitarian, functional purposes, as opposed to being a symbol of Palestinian sovereignty. It should be implemented as part of the U.N.’s model for humanitarian air operations which can be a practical framework to bring aviation into the coastal enclave. Whether it is administered through the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) or by establishing a dedicated agency to run the facility and flight operations, such an airport can be implemented in ways that address the complex and nuanced political and security needs of all parties involved—and soon.

UN MD-83 - UN Mu / 2011, DRC
UN MD-83 – UN Mu / 2011, DRC

United Nations humanitarian air operations are conducted throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in areas impacted by conflict and natural disasters. One of the best examples that demonstrates how humanitarian aviation can be a helpful tool in the midst of sheer suffering and political gridlock is Operation Lifeline Sudan (O.L.S.). Civilians in need of travel were transported in and out of certain areas using various U.N. mechanisms, including aircraft. The northern Kenyan town of Lokichoggio, and its airport, became a primary staging area for U.N. humanitarian air operations that serviced South Sudan.

UN Antonov An-12 - UN Photo / Operation Lifeline Sudan - Lokichoggio, Kenya
UN Antonov An-12 – UN Photo / Operation Lifeline Sudan – Lokichoggio, Kenya

There are precedents that make GAP feasible and practical: the U.N. ran an airport in Gaza during the 1950s and 60s; for the last 30 years; the U.N. has and continues to conduct humanitarian air operations in areas impacted by violence and disasters; international E.U. monitors operated the Rafah Border Crossing in 2005 and 2006; the U.N.’s Office for Project Services (UNOPS) has been implementing the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) after the 2014 war with the help of a private company (CTG Global) to ensure that dual-use materials are not diverted for illegitimate use in militant activities.

UNEF Aircraft, 1965, Gaza Airstrip - Gord Jenkins, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Center
UNEF Aircraft, 1965, Gaza Airstrip – Gord Jenkins, Canadian Forces Joint Imagery Center

One of the most important aspects of GAP is the proposed new location. The site of the destroyed Yasser Arafat airport was not suitable security wise and presented technical challenges due to its proximity to Israeli and Egyptian borders. Gaza’s future airport must be built on the southwestern coast of the Strip in the eastern part of al-Mawasi Khan Yunis (part of the former Gush Katif complex vacated by Israel in 2005) which is an open area that has spatial characteristics capable of creating a tightly-controlled environment to secure and protect the facility and allow for nearby recreational and commercial opportunities.

Proposed Location for the new airport on the southern coast of Gaza, where flights operations could take place almost exclusively over the Mediterranean, avoiding Israeli airspace - PUA Photo
Proposed Location for the new airport on the southern coast of Gaza, where flights operations could take place almost exclusively over the Mediterranean, avoiding Israeli airspace – PUA Photo

Over 80% of the site required for the airport is on public lands, minimizing the need to pay out compensations and to deal with relocating residents. PUA has already secured a commitment from Gaza’s government to keep the lands available for use in the proposed airport, and received a no-objection approval from Hamas towards the concept of full, unhindered international management of the airport. As for the other 20% of land, it is a combination of agricultural plots growing non-essential crops such as watermelons or flowers, as well as two to three dozen homes, many of which are secondary or vacation residences. PUA’s vision calls for compensating the owners of those land plots for their relocation in a socially-responsible way that minimizes hardship and provides them with comparable alternatives to have comfortable lives.

GAP Design Concept
GAP Design Concept – PUA Photo

The bulk of security-maintenance at the proposed humanitarian airport should be conducted by the United Nations through the use of specialized task forces via an arrangement similar to that utilized by the European Mission to the Rafah Border Crossing (EUBAM), or the one currently being deployed by UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. Private security firms can perform certain functions, provided that they are supplementary and secondary to U.N. staff and forces. It is possible to recycle some of the security arrangements that were in place during the operation of Gaza’s now destroyed international airport, including Israeli access to live video footage when necessary.

Proposed Air Traffic Control Zone
Proposed Air Traffic Control Zone – PUA Photo

With proper arrangements, Israel could supply a direct line of electricity to the facility, or if financially feasible, a heavy-duty power generation mechanism can be set up on site with Israel providing a gas line to operate the mini electricity station. Companies such as Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) or Bechtel can build the airport, while security firms such as Triple Canopy (acquired by Constellis) can play a significant role in security management, alongside U.N. police forces and monitors. CTG Global (already operating on behalf of the U.N. in Gaza) would be an ideal partner to manage personnel affairs. As far as aviation, air carriers such as UTair Aviation, Ethiopian Airlines, Safair, Air Urga, and Swiftair can be vital as they have contracted with the U.N.’s own aviation operations before. Other airlines could certainly play a role if they are interested and meet the U.N.’s criteria and aviation standards for humanitarian air transport operations.

Fleet options for passenger and cargo aircraft to service the Gaza Strip via the proposed United Nations humanitarian airport - PUA Photo
Fleet options for passenger and cargo aircraft to service the Gaza Strip via the proposed United Nations humanitarian airport – PUA Photo

Preliminary forecasts by PUA predict that between $250-500 million USD will be needed to reach initial operating capability. Reaching this stage will require land acquisition and clearance, construction of vital facilities, creating a U.N.-run workforce, establishing aviation contracts, and setting up a travel and pricing mechanism. Financiers can include Arab and regional countries in the Middle East, the European Union, the United States, key international players such as China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, and Indonesia, as well as private entrepreneurs and philanthropists such as Al-Waleed Bin Talal, Hamdi Ulukaya, Manoj Bhargava, or László Szombatfalvy.

Proposed Flight Paths to Four Nations Overlooking the Mediterranean - PUA Photo
Proposed Flight Paths to Four Nations Overlooking the Mediterranean – PUA Photo

Won’t this replicate the situation we have in southern Lebanon?

Some might be quick to condemn the U.N. as incapable of providing adequate security and would point to southern Lebanon where the presence of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) has not prevented arms smuggling or the build up of Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets and sophisticated weaponry. While it is true that the U.N.’s presence has failed to curb militancy in Southern Lebanon, the context, geography, conditions, and mission are not comparable with Gaza. First and foremost, the mission of the U.N. at the proposed airport would be much more specific than that of UNIFIL in Lebanon; securing the airport area of roughly four to five square km, instead of the UNIFIL’s 2,500 square km area of operation. An airport is much more finite in nature especially when its walled in and has limited entry and exit points, whereas Southern Lebanon has vast open areas and shares borders with Syria, which is a willing smuggling partner. The mountainous terrain and diverse topography of Southern Lebanon makes sophisticated tunnels and smuggling ideal which is not the case with the sandy hills located at the proposed new site for the airport on the southern coast of Gaza.

Additionally, PUA’s vision specifically calls for management and critical airport staff to come from outside of Gaza to reduce the risk of financial or ideological influence by locals. Robust verification systems can be devised to ensure that people leaving and entering Gaza are doing so for legitimate, not nefarious reasons. Many Palestinians, myself included, would not want the proposed airport to be a venue for actors such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to set up shop in Gaza. The same can be accomplished for humanitarian cargo whereby incoming shipments are thoroughly inspected and doubled checked, and the final destination is vetted before dispatch and delivery. This is where the U.N.’s extensive storage and distribution networks, which are already on the ground, could be handy to ensure that materials are distributed securely and professionally.

In 2016, senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya stated that Hamas would want international management and supervision of an airport and a seaport in Gaza, adding that “no illicit items or weapons would be smuggled through the facilities.” International supervision and operation, under a U.N. umbrella, can hold Hamas accountable and can capitalize on the group’s willingness to allow for the internationalization of infrastructure management.

Finally, a friend of mine, Sam Lauter, who is a lifelong pro-Israel activist and former chair of AIPAC’s Northern California board, shared an interesting perspective in a letter to the editors of the Jewish Weekly news after my op-ed was published last month. He stated that while he has “no delusions about the U.N. nor Hamas, the Strip is a powder keg and the people who live there are suffering … if Project Unified Assistance can be successful, and if the IDF and other parties agree, this could do a great deal to alleviate suffering on both sides of the border. There are no easy solutions, so I’m hoping a complicated one can bring some hope.”

Matthew Russell Lee / Sudan, 2010
UN Boeing 737 – Matthew Russell Lee / Sudan, 2010
About the Author
Ahmed Alkhatib is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Gaza Strip. A graduate of the University of San Francisco, he lives in the Bay Area. He is the founder and executive director of Project Unified Assistance (PUA), which is a U.S.-based humanitarian nonprofit organization advocating to establish a UN-operated and regulated airport in the Gaza Strip. Ahmed has strong interests in dissecting geopolitics and social entrepreneurship.
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