Israel might allow Gaza residents to travel through Ramon Airport. It won’t undo the blockade’s damage. – Mondoweiss

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When a nearby tourism office announced that, for the first time, a special flight would be available for Palestinians in Gaza, Akram Ayman, 36, signed up. The trip costs $600, would be accessible via the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, and includes a plane ticket from Israel’s Ramon Airport to Antalya in Turkey. This is the only approved destination for Palestinians in Gaza. It also comes with a number of conditions the travelers must fulfill to be eligible.

First, travelers must be older than 35 to travel alone, while those under that age can only travel while accompanying their families. Tourism offices posted the travel procedures, including coordination at the Erez crossing, but as soon as the agencies made the announcement, the government called them and demanded that they delete the ads for Ramon Airport without giving an explanation. But the tourism offices aren’t surprised either; they knew they were going over the government’s head by putting out the announcements. Since the government is in control of the borders from the Palestinian side, any announcement concerning travel should originate from the government, not the travel agencies.

Customers like Akram are not interested in the political implications of this announcement. All they see is an easier way to practice their right to movement instead of traveling through the Egyptian Rafah crossing and enduring the harrowing journey to reach Cairo airport. 

People in Gaza have very few ways of traveling due to Israel’s blockade, with only two crossings in and out of the Gaza Strip — Rafah on the Egyptian side and Erez on the Israeli side. Ramon Airport lies in southern Palestine, about 30 kilometers north of Eilat, and is roughly a 3-hour car ride from the Erez checkpoint.

“I’m looking for a respectable way to travel,” Akram told Mondoweiss. “Traveling through Egypt is difficult, and using Ramon Airport will give me the chance to enter my occupied homeland that I’ve never seen. For me, it’s not important how, but the most important thing is that I will be able to travel easily.”

So far, neither the Hamas government nor the Ministry of Tourism in Gaza has released any statements regarding travel via Ramon. Mondoweiss’s attempts to reach out for comment were rebuffed and met with refusal. The tourism offices in Gaza are still hoping that the Ramon deal will pan out, but advocates say it does nothing to alter the Gaza blockade, and Palestinian officials charge the plan only reinforces Israeli apartheid.

‘Reinforcing apartheid’

These announcements are new in Gaza and considered a novelty, but for Palestinians in the West Bank, Ramon Airport is old news. Similar plans to make the airport available to Palestinians in the West Bank were reportedly scrapped after Jordan protested that Palestinians’ use of Ramon would divert them from using Jordan’s King Hussein border crossing, from which the Jordanian government profits enormously. The Israeli companies that advertised Ramon for West Bank Palestinians billed it as a “privilege for Palestinians.” Yet coupled with the controversy that these plans stirred in the West Bank and Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA) started publicly repudiating the plan, saying that the Ramon Airport deal was merely a solidification of Israeli apartheid — a negation of Palestinians’ right to travel through their own airport on their own land.

These officials emphasize that Israel is manipulating Palestinians and sidestepping its obligations under international agreements to allow Palestinians their own airport. “We have other priorities to which we are entitled in accordance with international agreements, including [Israel] handing over the Jerusalem (Qalandia) International Airport [to Palestinians], rebuilding the Gaza International Airport, and allowing Palestinians to construct a new airport in the West Bank,” Musa Rahhal, a representative of the PA’s Ministry of Transportation, said in a report.

He also explained that the Palestinian use of Ramon would only benefit Israel, giving it more political leverage against Palestinians. But what is most notable about Rahhal’s comments is how he framed them — as wanting to preserve Jordanian economic interests. More than anything, this indicates that the PA decision to take a hard stance against the Ramon plan was ultimately motivated by wanting to avoid drawing Jordan’s ire, rather than any illusions about Palestinian sovereignty or holding Israel to international agreements.

Yet if even the PA — which already engages in security coordination with Israel — has adopted this sanctimonious tone in decrying the Ramon Airport, it’s understandable why the government in Gaza — which is also a resistance movement — would be reluctant to appear more amenable to Ramon than the PA.

The travel agencies in Gaza that made the announcement say they did not receive an announcement from the Tourism Ministry or the government in Gaza, but information regarding the flights came from tourism offices in the West Bank — and they are not sure whether the owners of these offices are Palestinians or Israelis.

A tourism office owner in the south of Gaza, who spoke with Mondoweiss on the condition of anonymity, said that only four companies in Gaza were working with these West Bank companies. Hundreds of people applied when they heard about the Ramon option through the company ads, but the government immediately ordered them to be removed.

“I do not believe that the government will allow these flights to go on from Gaza,” the owner said. “If it wanted to allow it, it would have already happened a while ago.” 

“The turnout was huge because people in Gaza are desperately looking for any way to travel that isn’t through Rafah,” he said, explaining that people have to pay $400 – $500 only to get their name listed on the Rafah border, not to mention the arduous 17-20 hour long bus drive to Cairo International Airport, with no stops in between.  

Gisha, the Israeli human rights organization, said that no changes had been made to the Israeli travel policy for Palestinians in and out of Gaza. The closure that Israel enforces is still  — obviously — very much in place. Through this closure, Israel is the ultimate body to decide who and what can enter or exit Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing.

It is also clear that this option offers travelers from Gaza very little in the way of freedom of movement within their own homeland. The moment they pass through the Erez crossing, the company buses will be accompanied by an Israeli security detail all the way to the airport. Each traveler will hold a “Passing permit to Ramon airport,” and they will not be allowed to go anywhere else. 

Separation policy

Gisha also confirmed that any advertisement claiming that people will be able to travel from Gaza to Ramon by paying some kind of fee is inaccurate. 

“Basically, any person who wants to travel via Erez crossing can only do it in one specific way, which is to submit for application for a permit,” a Gisha representative told Mondoweiss. “This application is submitted through the Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Committee in Gaza, working as an official channel to deliver the applications to the Israeli authorities, who decide which applications to approve or deny.”

The Israeli authorities also determine the circumstances in which Palestinians in Gaza can even apply for a permit. In other words, not everyone can show up at the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee and have their application automatically channeled to Israel — rather, the Committee can only accept the application that meets the Israeli criteria for applying for a permit. Unsurprisingly, the criteria are extremely limiting. 

“The ways in which Israel restricts movement between Gaza, Israel, the West Bank, and abroad, are very much in service of certain Israeli objectives of the separation policy,” the Gisha representative explained. “This is a policy with the clear objective of minimizing the movement of Palestinians between parts of the occupied territories.”

Yet even if this deal were to materialize, says Gisha, it is far from enough to undo the damage that over a decade and a half of closures and restriction of movement has done to Palestinians in Gaza.

“Only a few Gaza residents will meet the criteria for travel through Ramon,” the Gisha representative said. “The decade and a half of closure has harmed Palestinian lives in many ways, and continues to do so.” 

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