It was 7 a.m. on June 2, 1996, in Cairo, when Captain Zeyad al-Bada received a surprising phone call from the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat.
Arafat told al-Bada, then 39-year-old captain of the Palestinian company and Arafat’s personal pilot, that he would be the first to land at the newly built Gaza International Airport.
“There were no air maps, no radars, the Gaza airport was not even globally recognized,” al-Bada, now the airline’s general manager, told Al Jazeera.
Cairo International Airport refused to create a flight plan to Gaza until Arafat asked then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step in and order the aviation authority Egyptian civilians to issue one.
Al-Bada feared landing on an “asphalt street” rather than a high-quality runway. His hands and legs were shaking during the flight, and he burst into tears of joy as he descended to the airport.
“As I landed, I saw crowds of people dancing, I spontaneously [Palestinian] flag from Yasser Arafat’s closet and lifted it out the window, waving to the crowd.
Al-Bada flew 55 times to various destinations to and from Gaza International Airport after it was officially opened in 1998 as part of the Oslo Accords, before flights were cut off on October 7, 2000, continued the rising tensions between Israel and Palestine.
It was destroyed by Israeli forces during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.
Those who have worked at the airport in the Palestinian enclave – which has been under the Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007 – remember the pride they took in its construction and the pain that persists nearly 20 years after its destruction .
My father – who passed away eight years ago this month – was among those who helped build an airport that was a Palestinian symbol deep in besieged territory.
Track built in 45 days
Arafat started the airport project, located near the southern city of Rafah, near the border with Egypt, in 1994.
Usama el-Khoudary, my father, was a Palestinian contract engineer who won the tender for the construction of the runway and the apron of the airport where the planes are parked by offering a bid bass that did not bring him a profit.
“Osama didn’t care about the price of the offer, he wanted to be part of the Gaza International Airport, he wanted to be part of this story,” his wife and my mother, Marwa el-Khoudary told Al Jazeera.
“He was in his thirties when he won the offer, I remember his sparkling eyes the day he was announced as a tender winner.
I am the only child among nine children. I was five months old when my dad started working on the project. My father believed that the birth of each of his children had won him a new offer. Hammam, my older brother, said to me: “Your gift to daddy was the offer from the airport.”
In order to minimize expenses, he decided to build the track in 45 days, half the time planned.
“I don’t think I saw him for more than an hour during the 45 days,” my mother recalls.
The project began in early 1996 with around 150 workers and just four vehicles, laying around 3,000 to 3,500 tonnes of asphalt per day.
My father worked in cooperation with NORCO, which was the only asphalt and paving company in Gaza when it was established in Jabalya in 1993.
Saleem al-Atwneh, 66, was an asphalt worker who helped build the track.
He told Al Jazeera that Israel tried to block the airport building, blocking materials and preventing vehicles from accessing the site they were working on day and night.
“We worked 24/7, but we were happy, it was a dream we were making with our own hands,” al-Atwneh told Al Jazeera.
“We asphalt workers and engineers were there to celebrate the first time the plane landed at Gaza International Airport,” he said. “The plane landed for the first time without any cracks, everyone was so proud of us!”
The opening of the airport seems to suggest a move towards a Palestinian state. It became known as the Yasser Arafat International Airport.
But Israeli forces bulldozers first tore up the trail in 2001 during the Second Intifada.
“Usama and I went to the airport the morning after the Israeli demolition. We were very sad but we did not give up hope, ”Yasser Rehan, NORCO owner, told Al Jazeera in a trembling voice. My dad and Rehan fixed the trail.
But Israeli forces carried out air raids in 2001 and subsequent years that completely destroyed the airport and runway.
Gaza under victory
My father’s engineering and construction company was established in 1985 and had completed 58 projects across Gaza, including the fish market, Al Karama towers, and the Qattan Center for the Child, as well as several projects in school, infrastructure and housing.
But he left the Gaza Strip in 2007. He died in December 2012 at the age of 51, leaving behind more than $ 2 million in debt due to an abandoned hospital construction project. of the blockade.
Meanwhile, there are still debts related to the airport project 20 years later.
Rehan told Al Jazeera that due to a disagreement, the PA has still not paid the contractors for the project, who in turn still owe the subcontractors 2 million shekel ($ 615,000) for its work on the airport runway. The AP did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Rehan sold NORCO in 2007 and was forced to stop all work due to the blockade, which crippled the construction industry in Gaza.
Al-Atwneh has been unemployed for 10 years – just one of the thousands of unemployed in the Gaza Strip.
Five of my brothers and I left the Gaza Strip to find a better income to pay off our father’s debts. Three of my brothers stay in Gaza with my mother.
The death of our father was a turning point in the life of my family, especially me, being my father’s only daughter. I got my strength from my father to become a successful journalist.
We are particularly proud of his work at the Gaza airport.
Gaza airport was more than a project. It was a symbol of freedom for the Palestinians. Flying the Palestinian flag in the sky was the dream of every Palestinian.
The bombed buildings are nothing out of the ordinary in the Gaza Strip. But the airport is different, the dream of Palestine is completely ruined.
A track built in 45 days with passion and hope is now a pile of sand. You can’t even imagine that a plane has ever landed there.
Whenever I worked in Rafah and passed the crumbling airport, all I felt was heartache.
But Captain al-Bada told Al Jazeera he was helping develop plans to establish a new airport at another site in Gosh Gatif, in the southern Gaza Strip.
He said he would seek approval for the construction from the Palestinian Authority once the planning and design stages are completed and funds raised.
Although many believe that Israel will never allow Gaza to have a new airport, al-Bada remains optimistic that this Palestinian dream will be revived since it has been realized before.
“I landed the first plane there without any installation or navigation in 1996,” al-Bada said. “I believe I will fly from Gaza to the world again.”