x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Palestinian Airlines takes off after being grounded for seven years

Once hailed as a symbol of Palestinian statehood dreams, the carrier is a tiny operation, with just two 48-seat turboprop planes, two weekly flights and a borrowed hub in Egypt.

A Palestinian Airlines flight takes off from Marka Airbase in Amman, Jordan to El Arish in Egypt, some 60 kilometres from Gaza.
A Palestinian Airlines flight takes off from Marka Airbase in Amman, Jordan to El Arish in Egypt, some 60 kilometres from Gaza.

MARKA AIRBASE, JORDAN // Palestinian Airlines is back in the skies after being grounded for seven years by the enmities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Once hailed as a symbol of Palestinian statehood dreams, the carrier is a tiny operation, with just two 48-seat turboprop planes, two weekly flights and a borrowed hub in Egypt.

But Palestinians say just being on the map again is what matters.

"My hands were shaking when I bought the ticket ... and it said the name of the carrier is Palestinian Airlines," said Zuhair Mohammed, 38, a teacher from Gaza.

The 15-year-old airline's fortunes have been closely tied to the quest for a Palestinian state.

In the late 1990s, when Palestinians appeared on the verge of a statehood deal with Israel, Palestinian Airlines operated from Gaza International Airport, flew tens of thousands of passengers a year to Middle Eastern destinations and planned to expand to Europe.

Those ambitions were crushed by the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in September 2000, following the collapse of US-led peace talks. Over the next year, Israeli troops destroyed the Gaza airport, and Palestinian Airlines was forced to move its base to El Arish in Egypt, about 60 kilometres from Gaza.

Seven years ago, the airline stopped flying altogether after its reservoir of passengers dried up.

On Sunday, the Amman-El Arish flight carried 27 passengers, and 44 were booked on the return trip later in the day. The flight takes an hour and 35 minutes, more than double the time needed for the direct route over Israel. The airline does not have permission to cross Israeli air space, said regional director Azmi Samaan.

Airline officials said flights to Saudi Arabia for pilgrims from Gaza are set to begin later this week, and routes to the UAE and Turkey are being planned.

The airline hopes it will eventually make a profit, but for now national pride and making life easier for Gazans are more important, said Mr Samaan.

"We want the Palestinian flag to continue flying," he said. "This is part of the independent state, to have an airline, no matter what it will cost us."