Gaza’s International Airport - a Short-lived Source of Hope

Peace-seeking Israeli architects’ response to the destruction would be bombarding the Palestinians with business cards.

Yasser Arafat International Airport

In the absence of victory, the sentence “What needs to happen now is … ” is the victory sentence of the Gaza war, as usually those words are followed by “go after them with all we’ve got.” Israeli architects have come up with their own ending for the sentence, though theirs is more peaceful and well-intentioned, and entails optimism and action alongside a bit of black humor, cynicism and some Brecht-like irony. “What needs to happen now after the terrible destruction in Gaza,” said one peace-loving architect, “is that we must bombard them with architects’ business cards so that they know who to contact. The opportunity is really here.”

When peace finally comes, professionals should be able to make their way into the ruins Gaza alongside the sacks of concrete and other raw materials. Perhaps they will actually manage to atone for some of the killing and destruction. Although driven perhaps more by political and economic interests than world peace and brotherhood, Israel has a great deal of experience in providing architectural aid for “developing nations.”

One trip to Gaza I’ll never forget is the time (along with photographer Yoav Roccas) I went in December 1998 to the Yasser Arafat International Airport, which had just been dedicated in Dahaniya, in southern Gaza. The road from the Erez crossing, less than an hour away, was dirty and winding. The view from both sides was a cross between partially-cultivated farmland suffering from famine or political circumstances and half-built homes sporting iron bars jutting from the top, waiting for more floors to be added on. Nothing that cannot be seen in Arab-Israeli towns, which are denied appropriate planning and zoning rights.

The buildings’ style was also familiar: inverted concrete arches, parapets in the shape of altar horns and polished marble. Ironically, all of these made their way to Gaza from “self-build” neighborhoods throughout Israel that were erected by Palestinian laborers, as well as Arab-Israeli towns that also adopted these styles. In both places, they were considered the height of style and luxury. The critical jargon would call it “cultural occupation.

With this as a backdrop, the airport could be seen off in the distance.

The walls of cynicism fell before the naïve “local” architecture, political in nature, and a sense of completion with no remorse. The airport compound was comprised of one central terminal and a scattering of small service buildings, creating a small, toy-like desert city. The buildings, for cargo, fuel storage and the like, were covered in sand-colored plaster and decorated with sharp Islamic arches that looked as if they were made of paper, although actually made of plaster.

The airport structures were planned by the Amin Al-Uri architectural firm from Casablanca, which had planned airports in Morocco. The airport was small and intimate. The terminal was a rather grand building, decorated with colorful ceramic tile work made by 45 ceramicists brought in from Morocco and traditional Moroccan-style paintings. Okay – the door frames were made of brown aluminum and the chairs were plastic, but nothing is perfect.

A golden dome stood above the rest, marking the luxurious VIP lounge. The fact that we weren’t allowed inside only added to its legend. The terminal design was a source of pride for the Palestinian hosts – no less than the open skies over Gaza – and symbolized for them, as they said, national identity and pan-Arab brotherhood.

Only two years after its dedication, Israel closed the terminal as a response to the Second Intifada. A year later, the Israel Air Force destroyed the legend – and the hope, the pride – and Gaza’s skies were closed.

When they open again, and not just for an aerial bombardment, one can only hope that the business card from the Amin Al-Uri firm in Casablanca hasn’t been lost, and that the restoration of the airport will be left to qualified hands.