“The Qalandia Airport was a magical place where I first experienced, as a child, the freedom of flying. Like the rest of Palestinian land, it was stolen, violated and deformed, becoming a symbol of oppression and captivity.” It was with these words that Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) reacted to the announcement made by the Israeli Housing Ministry on last 18 February, when its spokesperson reiterated Israel’s intention, already voiced several years ago, to create a colony on the site of the former Jerusalem airport. Today, even its name is subject to debate: whereas Israelis call it “the former Aratot airport” after the name of a neighbouring moshav (cooperative agricultural village), Palestinians prefer “Qalandia” or “Jerusalem airport.”
An airfield in British Mandate Palestine
Flashback: 1920. The British built a military aerodrome on a land close by the Jerusalem-Ramallah highway. They called it “Kolundia Airfield.” It was the first and only airport in mandatory Palestine until the construction in 1936 of Lod Airport, later to be named after Ben Gourion. When the British mandate came to an end, in 1948, Kolundia was placed under Jordanian control and became a thriving civilian terminal. “Jerusalem Airport” was printed in big capitals on the runway. Several airlines quickly began using it: two of them were Lebanese, Air Liban and Middle East Airlines (which merged in 1964), establishing twice daily connections with Beirut, but also Egypt Air and Air Jordan (now Royal Jordanian).
Cairo, Amman, Aden and Kuwait City were served several times a week. “We must remember that many Palestinians have family or business connections in neighbouring countries. In the course of my research, I met a man who ran a bookshop in Ramallah: he told me he travelled several times every week to Beirut or Cairo to get or take books there. The situation was very different then: the Arab world was open to us,” Nahel Awwad explains.
She is a Palestinian filmmaker who knows by heart the history of that airport. After years of research and with no access to any historical data, she managed to put together all the pieces of the puzzle and in 2007 made a documentary, 5 minutes from home (Akka Films, Monarch Films and Karavan Films). “For Palestinians, Jerusalem Airport was their doorway to the world, and it was the entrance to the Holy Land for tourists, pilgrims and for the whole Arab world. Many famous actors, religious figures and politicians landed at Jerusalem Airport,” she explains.
After the Israeli-Arab war of June 1967, the site was artificially included in the territories annexed by Israel, before it was expropriated in 1970. At that time the airport was still registered as part of the occupied territories. Consequently, the State of Israel could not use it as an international airport. ‟It was registered under Jordanian jurisdiction in the air navigation plan drawn up by the International Veil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for the Middle East. Israel tried to get around that agreement but failed. That was one of the few times when all the Arab countries spoke as one.”
Between 1970 and 2000 traffic was confined to domestic flights, mainly to and from Tel Aviv. These were permanently ended at the beginning of the new century, after the start of the second Intifada.
A parking space for coaches
While today the runway and control tower are still intact, Jerusalem airport has been completely abandoned. Cut off from the districts of Kafr Aqab and Al-Ram, as well as the West Bank by the separation wall, it has become a windswept vacant lot, a few dozen metres from the Qalandia checkpoint.
The construction of the wall played a crucial role in the history of the airport, making it inaccessible and even invisible for most Palestinians. It was even a source of considerable difficulties for Nahel Awwad in the making of her film: “Between the moment when I began the shoot and the moment I finished it, the Israelis finished building the wall. So I could no longer go there without a permit. My crew and I applied to go there via the French embassy in Jerusalem, since the film was a French co-production. Part of the crew only got their permits at the last minute, the day before the shoot ended. I never got mine, even though I was directing the film: I slipped in illegally. When I think back on that today, I say to myself it was completely crazy, but the situation was different from what it is now.”
It was in 2007 that the first rumours of a new colony began to circulate. Though no actual project is under way, Israel has not scrapped the idea. On the Palestinian side, the history of the airport seems on its way to oblivion, especially in the minds of the younger generation. In the coach to Jerusalem which passes close by the runway, two young Palestinians have this to say: “That field? It used to be Palestine’s airport. But we don’t know much more. They built a wall in front of it, you need a permit to see what’s left of it.”
Nahel Awwad expands: “Today the site is not only occupied, it hardly exists in the memory of my generation, and remains hidden away in the minds of people who knew it as a civil aviation hub. As a Palestinian, I discovered a part of my own history of which I knew nothing. I had a tiny taste of freedom seeing what was once a doorway open to the world. My film is also part of the struggle to make that history known,” the filmmaker explains.
In this month of March 2020, twenty motor-coaches are sitting on the runway. “When we have a few hours off, we park here,” a driver tells us. “But don’t go towards the control tower, Israeli soldiers are guarding it and they don’t like people coming too close,” he warns.
A future colony of 11,000 dwellings
So the announcement made on last 18 February by the Housing Ministry of an immanent project involving 11, 000 dwellings on this site has a peculiar ring for many Palestinians, especially for those who knew the airport.
The NGO Jerusalem Terrestial protested: “The boundaries of the project coincide only partially with the terms of the 1970 expropriation notice and the composition of the property is a complex mosaic. Most of the site is in the public domain; only a small share is land belonging to The Jewish National Fund1, located on the site of the Atarot moshav, which was abandoned in 1948. Nearly 25% of that land belongs to Palestinians.”
In the NGO’s analysis, the reasons for Israel’s interest in this site are self-evident: “Jerusalem has exhausted nearly all its territorial resources and the only parcels of land left are extremely problematic. Considering the rapid growth of its ultra-orthodox communities, the youngest families feel obliged to leave Jerusalem for the neighbouring town of Beit Shemeshand or for the two large colonies on the West Bank of the Green line, Madiin Illit and Beitar Illit. The installation of a new colony would be meant to meet the growing needs of these communities and there was even a surrealistic plan to dig a tunnel under the Qalandia refugees camp to connect the airport with the ultra-orthodox colony Kochov Ya’acov to the north.”
This new project is, moreover, in complete contradiction with the US “Peace to Prosperity” plan, revealed only a few days before the ministry’s announcement. Indeed, the badly named “deal of the century” is meant to make this site serve the development of a world class tourist zone in aid of Muslim tourism to Jerusalem and its Holy Places”. In short, the construction of a complex of hotels, restaurants and shops under Israeli control and for the benefit of Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, if no one believes the Trump plan can possibly see the light of day, it is also because Israeli decision-makers go on with their plans, ignoring it completely. “The message to Palestinians is crystal-clear: with the backing of the United States, Israel does as it pleases, including the construction of a colony on the very spot which Trump’s plan designates for activities beneficial to Palestinians,” as Terrestrial Jerusalem’s analysis puts it.
So will this project ever be implemented? Nothing could be less certain. It would come up against enormous legal complications, especially because of its proximity with Ramallah and Kafr Aqab.
“It is a piece of news which pains me greatly. I really hope they don’t go through with it. But we know how they work. They make an announcement, sift through the reactions, and a few years later they have another go,” is Nahed Awwad’s conclusion.
1The Jewish National Fund was founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in Ottoman Palestine for Jewish settlement. The JNF is a non-profit organisation. (Wikipedia)