Once the site of an arrival by US President Bill Clinton in 1998, today the Gaza International Airport in Rafah is a derelict that reflects the shattered hopes for peace between Israel and Palestine: A runway littered with debris, concourses destroyed by artillery shelling, and a golden dome, home of the frequent flyer VIPs, smashed in by a missile. The road map to peace provided by the Oslo Accords and shepherded along by US President Bill Clinton looked like the first international agreement that would lead to substantive change between these two groups – change that today seems even more unlikely given the escalation of violence in the Gaza strip.
While Palestinian airlines only had three planes in its fleet, one of which was donated by a Saudi prince, the symbolism of having an air fleet and an international airport meant sovereignty and nationhood to the people of Palestine, a sentiment far eclipsing that of having an air shuttle service or a point of entry. It meant nationhood, sovereignty, and the first steps to a new tomorrow.
Much of that is now lost in the chaos between Israel and Palestine, but the sentiments shared that day US President Bill Clinton arrived in Gaza by helicopter are remembered by many in the area, particularly by former director general of the Gaza International Airport, Salman Abu Halib who said: “We will all remember it forever. The Palestinian people felt they’d secured one of the symbols of sovereignty, and this was being witnessed by the president of the United States. This was the very first airport in the history of the Palestinian people. …Now we had an airport and our own planes.”