Palestinians fly to Cyprus in Israeli airport pilot programme

Critics say flights do little to make it easier for Palestinians living in territories occupied by Israel to travel.

View of the international Ramon Airport
The recently opened Ramon Airport is located near Israel’s resort city of Eilat, south of Jerusalem [File: Menahem Kahana/AFP]

Several dozen Palestinians flew to Cyprus on Monday from an airport in southern Israel as part of a pilot programme ostensibly aimed at allowing Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to fly abroad.

While Israel has attempted to frame the move as an effort to improve Palestinian living conditions, critics have said the measures do not address the daily humiliations of the decades-long occupation or pave the road for Palestinian statehood.

Forty-three residents of the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and Nablus took off from Ramon Airport heading to Larnaca, Cyprus, said Amir Assi, a strategic consultant who coordinated the flights.

COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for governing civil affairs in the West Bank, confirmed that Palestinians boarded an international flight from Ramon Airport for the first time and that “staff work is still under way” to facilitate regular flights for Palestinians.

The recently opened Ramon Airport is located near Israel’s resort city of Eilat, approximately 300km (186 miles) south of Jerusalem. It is smaller than Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv, has fewer flights and destinations and is less busy.

Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip face severe travel restrictions imposed by Israel. They do not have their own airport and must apply for a hard-to-obtain airport permit to use Ben Gurion Airport. Such permits are only approved, if at all, shortly before takeoff.

Those in the West Bank wishing to fly abroad must travel to Jordan’s capital, Amman, through a crowded Israeli border crossing.

The crossing is not open 24 hours a day, forcing many travellers to pay to stay in a hotel nearby before their flight. There are also travel costs and crossing fees that make the journey an added financial burden.

INTERACTIVE How Israel controls Palestinian travel22
(Al Jazeera)

Reporting from West Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim said Monday was the first time that Palestinians were able to travel from Ramon Airport since it opened in 2019.

“They were not subjected to any additional security measures. They took a shuttle from the occupied West Bank then drove about four hours to Ramon Airport where they boarded that flight,” she said.

Ghoneim explained that a number of controversial issues regarding plans for Palestinians to travel from Ramon Airport remained.

“There have been plans that Turkish-owned Pegasus Airlines will begin flying out of Ramon Airport to carry out Palestinian passengers this month, but an airport official tells us that those plans have been cancelled and they don’t know why,” she added.

The exact details of Monday’s flight from Ramon Airport were difficult to obtain beforehand, with inaccurate information provided to Al Jazeera and other media outlets in advance of the flight.

An airport official later told Al Jazeera that this was to protect the privacy of passengers.

Palestinian and Jordanian authorities are uncomfortable with the Israeli plan for various reasons.

The Palestinian Authority says it was never consulted about the plan and that it is not a solution for Palestinians who remain without a functioning airport.

The Jordanians would also stand to lose a lot of money if Palestinians have another option to travel, as many Palestinians currently drive to the Jordanian border to fly out of Amman’s Queen Alia Airport.

“If there is a significant drop in the number of Palestinians crossing at that land border, Jordan stands to lose a lot of money. This explains why previously … Jordan expressed displeasure [over the plan],” she added.

Palestinians previously used two airports to travel internationally, Qalandiya Airport, which was closed by Israel in 2000, and Gaza Airport, which was destroyed by Israel in 2001.

The Gaza Strip has been under a blockade since Hamas seized power in 2007, and all movement in and out of the territory is heavily restricted by Israel and Egypt.

The airport authority had said earlier this month that there would be two flights a week for Palestinians from Ramon to Antalya, Turkey, later in August and that flights to Istanbul would begin in September.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies