During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Bank Leumi decided to lift the spirits of the people and handed out hundreds of thousands of blue stickers promising, “We will win.” Somebody stuck one on the desk in the control tower at Atarot Airport.
The present state of the airport in northern Jerusalem, 20 years after it was closed down at the height of the Second Intifada, tells us nothing about its magnificent past. The room we stand in is a ruin. Pieces of long-obsolete computers are strewn on the floor; lengths of cable, sheets of metal and chunks of insulation hang down from the ceiling. The windows are broken or missing. Everything is coated in dust.
Elsewhere in the building, the wood-paneled VIP lounge for first class passengers, with disintegrating wall-to-wall carpeting, is still there. The garden downstairs has grown wild, the fire station and fuel tanks are abandoned and the meteorological station is disappearing into the weeds.
The airport’s heyday was from 1948 through 1967, when Jordan ruled part of Jerusalem. Now new research by Dr. Eldad Brin, to be published in the Jerusalem Quarterly, is changing the way we tend to think of Jordanian Jerusalem.
Going through photographs from the Jordanian period, Brin ran across something he hadn’t expected: international airline offices on the main streets of the Jordanian side of the city: Sabena, KLM, Air France, Alitalia and most of the Arab airlines of the period. The signs provoked his curiosity mainly because they contravened the usual view of Jordanian Jerusalem: a small, provincial town that the Hashemite Kingdom left to molder, preferring to invest in strengthening its capital city, Amman.
Further research led Brin to the website Airline Timetable Images, run by two people devoted to collecting airline timetables, new and old, who uploaded timetables for most of the world’s airlines. Finding flights that took off and landed in Jerusalem revealed a briskly active airport, Brin says.
“There were 16 weekly flights from here to Beirut,” he says. “You could fly from here to Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, Jedda, Doha, Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan, Abadan in Iran, Nicosia and also Rome, on what was called the ‘Holy Cities Line.’”
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The first plane to land in Jerusalem did so on the last day of 1913, where the Armon Hanatziv promenade is today. It had been participating in a competition, which it lost. The crew decided to land in the holy city so that nonetheless they could be first in some way.
After the British captured the city in 1917 from the Ottomans, a landing strip was built near the Allenby Barracks in southeast Jerusalem. They planned to build the municipal airport there, but opposition from the residents of the Talpiot neighborhood led them to relocate the plan to 10 kilometers from the city. The airfield went up in the north on the land of Moshav Atarot, near the village of Qalandiyah.
During the British Mandate and Jordanian periods, the airport was called Qalandiyah; only later, under Israeli rule, would it receive the name of the abandoned moshav.
The last British high commissioner for Palestine under the Mandate, Sir Alan Cunningham, flew out from the Qalandiyah Airport on the last day of the Mandate. The defenders of Moshav Atarot succeeded in capturing the airport after that, but were forced to retreat in the face of Jordan’s Arab Legion. The moshav was also attacked by the Arab Legion and had to be abandoned two days after the founding of Israel in 1948, and the airport and entire West Bank were captured and became part of the Jordanian kingdom.
A year later, internal flights began from Qalandiyah to Amman.
The rise of the Jerusalem Airport
In May 1950, the Jordanians reinaugurated the facility as the Jerusalem Airport. Border control points and customs stations were added. The terminal was built a few years later. The terminal buildings and control tower look a lot like those at the old Terminal 1 at Ben-Gurion International Airport, apparently because the Jordanians used the same plans that served the British in building what they had originally named the Lydda Airport.
The Jerusalem Airport’s heyday was the 1960s. While filming “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1961, the stars Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif used it to fly to the film location in Wadi Rum in Jordan, from the American Colony Hotel where they were staying. Others who used the airport included the king and queen of Belgium, the U.S secretary of state, and at least one U.S. senator, all on official visits.
It seems the airport’s peak year was 1966, when around 100,000 travelers landed there, double the number that landed in Jordan’s capital, Amman. Most were tourists and pilgrims, but there were also Palestinian students attending school in Arab countries, merchants, diplomats and others. The airport was important for Palestinians working in Kuwait’s flourishing oil industry; also, Kuwaitis often sent their children to school in Jerusalem, and some even set up a small neighborhood of homes near the terminal known as “Airport Neighborhood.”
Actually, though, few Western airlines used the airport. According to Brin, this wasn’t for political reasons (which was however the case when Israel occupied the area and sought to reopen the airport) but for technical ones – a short runway and the fact that it had no lighting, which meant it could only be used during the day. Nevertheless, Western airlines did offer trips in cooperation with Arab airlines and therefore maintained offices in Jerusalem.
Studies of Jerusalem during the period when the city was divided have often claimed that Jordanian Jerusalem was small, impoverished and deliberately neglected by the Jordanian authorities, which didn’t want it to compete with Amman. The story of the Qalandiyah airport shows that the truth was more complex.
“It’s true that [East] Jerusalem covered a smaller area than western Jerusalem, and there was the murder of Abdullah, and there was political tension between the Jordanians and the Palestinians,” said Brin, referring to the 1951 murder of Jordan’s then-ruler on the Temple Mount. But Abdullah’s grandson and successor, King Hussein, “understood the city’s potential and Jerusalem’s political importance. The planes that landed here legitimized Jordan’s control of the city.”
The Six-Day War of 1967 ruined the Jordanians’ plans to expand the airport and lengthen the runway. It also ended the airport’s golden age.
Airport in occupied territory
Granted, the airport fit nicely into the Israeli government’s vision of one large, united city, and in fact, to a large extent, it has shaped the face of the city to this day, since the government decided to include it in Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. It did this because leaving the airport in the West Bank, under Israeli military rule, wouldn’t have allowed it to stamp visitors’ passports with an Israeli stamp.
This decision created a bulge in the city’s northern boundary. It also required tens of thousands of Palestinians living in this bulge to be annexed to the city.
But Israel quickly discovered that including the airport in its capital’s municipal borders didn’t suffice to make it acceptable as an international airport. The rest of the world considered this occupied territory, so no airline would agree to use the airport, and no other airport would agree to accept flights that took off from Atarot.
Israel nevertheless made various attempts to turn it into an international airport – for instance, by having planes returning from Europe make a brief stop at Ben-Gurion Airport, change their flight number and then immediately take off again and land a few minutes later at Atarot. But this system was too convoluted to survive long. In addition, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted on taking off from Atarot when he visited Egypt. But none of these efforts availed, and the airport ended up being used for domestic flights only, mainly to Eilat.
“There were domestic flights and there were romantic flights around Jerusalem and cloud-seeding flights, but the airport during this period was a pale shadow of what it was during the Jordanian period,” Brin said.
During the second intifada (2000-2005), the Israel Defense Forces decided that the security situation made it impossible to protect planes taking off or landing just a few dozen meters from the Palestinian village of Aqab, so flights were halted. The Kanfei Yerushalayim flight school continued using the airport for a brief time after that.
Soldiers took positions around the airport and stationed a machine gun on the balcony of the control tower. But over time the grounds went wild and the building began falling apart.
Meanwhile, the separation fence was built adjacent to the airport. On the other side of it, Aqab became a crowded neighborhood full of tall buildings, since the Jerusalem municipality stopped supervising construction there.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan designated the area as a development zone for a future Palestinian state. But for years now, a plan to build a huge ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in place of the airport has been wending its way through the Jerusalem municipality and government planning agencies.
Under this plan, the airfield and the terminal would be razed completely. The runway would become a broad boulevard.
Brin thinks this would be a mistake. He views the huge Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, which was turned into a municipal park, as a better model.
“It would be fitting to convert the abandoned airport’s large space, with its historic terminal building and its long runway, into a well-cared-for municipal park that would be unique in Israel, and certainly for East Jerusalem, which is hungry for such a park,” he said. “The proximity of the Atarot industrial zone and the Rami Levy mall, both venues for positive Jewish-Palestinian encounters, would help with this. There’s no better way to preserve the site and memorialize its contribution to the city ever since it was built as a British landing strip in the 1920s.”