Jerusalem's abandoned airport may be transformed into an Israeli settlement

Passengers once flew to Europe and across the Middle East from Jerusalem

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The control tower may be covered in dust, but Jerusalem’s derelict airport is being thrust from obscurity into the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Vines are taking over the terminal, where rusting baggage carousels lay abandoned. Decades earlier, smartly-dressed Palestinians and foreigners would fly to Baghdad, Rome and elsewhere from this city hub.

“Most frequently it was used by the elite,” said Anne Cohen-Koehler, from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, a German institute which co-organised an exhibition on the airport.

“Going for a good dinner in Beirut or a theatre performance,” or to study abroad, she added.

Archive photographs collated by the Foundation and another institution in Jerusalem, the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, show a vibrant terminus in the 1950s and 1960s.

“You feel the life that was bustling at this airport,” said Julius Freytag-Loringhoven, head of the Foundation’s Jerusalem office.

“We thought it was kind of a piece of historic memory which is very important also for the present and future of Jerusalem,” he said.

An airstair, used by passengers to reach a plane, at Jerusalem airport. Rosie Scammell / The National

Built by the British in the 1920s, the airport came under Jordanian control after the creation of Israel in 1948.

International travel was halted by the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israeli forces captured territories including East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Flight paths changed to serve Israeli destinations, but in 2001 the airport was deserted entirely.

Since then bushes have laid claim to the runway, while the steps of an orange airstair now lead to the open sky.

In the distance a high concrete wall snakes across the landscape; the barrier built by Israel in the 2000s which cuts into the occupied West Bank.

Beyond the wall stand the apartment blocks of Kafr Aqab, a Palestinian neighbourhood south of Ramallah. Those residents must pass through the congested Qalandia checkpoint to reach central Jerusalem, if they hold the necessary Israeli paperwork.

Greeting a visiting dignitary at Jerusalem airport in the 1960s. Dr Mohammed Al Qutob Family Archive

A new settlement

Against this background, some officials have decided that the airport should be transformed into a settlement for tens of thousands of Israelis.

“This is a crazy plan,” said Hagit Ofran, the settlements expert at Israeli NGO Peace Now.

“It’s going to be an Israeli enclave disconnected from any Israeli neighbourhood, surrounded from all sides with dense, Palestinian urban areas,” she said.

Some 500,000 Israeli settlers already live in the West Bank, while 200,000 reside in East Jerusalem.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Jerusalem's deputy mayor, said the project would address the housing needs of the city's growing population.

"A residential area in an old abandoned airport does not only make planning sense but will enhance that entire area of the city for Jews and Arabs alike," she told The National.

Israel claims sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, while the Palestinians see the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state. Such aspirations are diminished by Israeli settlements, particularly at the airport which is located between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

“It’s meant to torpedo the possibility of the development of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,” said Ms Ofran.

Plans for the airport site, known as Atarot to Israelis, have proven so controversial that they have laid dormant for years.

Until last month, when a committee at Jerusalem’s municipality formally backed the plan.

Rusting baggage carousels at Jerusalem airport. Rosie Scammell / The National

The Palestinian Authority’s transport minister, Assem Salem, slammed the approval as a “provocative step” and described the airport as a “symbol of Palestinian national sovereignty”.

Advancement of the settlement plan also drew the attention of Israel’s top ally, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussing the matter with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in early December.

The call came ahead of a Monday meeting when Israeli planning officials were expected to green light the settlement, moving it another step closer to being realised.

Pressure from Washington may have played a role in the committee instead ordering an environmental impact survey of the site, which is just north of an industrial zone.

While the survey delays the process, it does not halt the settlement project.

“The bureaucracy works on what is on the table,” said Ms Ofran. “They need to take it off the table and say ‘we cancel the plan’ in order to stop it.”

Unless the Atarot settlement is scrapped by the government, it will likely progress through the planning stages and become hard for any future administration to cancel.

While the airport’s fate hangs in the balance, the scene inside the control tower is one of abandonment.

But amid the debris, a blue sticker has been added to the desk. In Hebrew, it reads: “we will win!”

Updated: December 12, 2021, 4:08 AM