Studying a map of Gaza does not reveal much. It’s a small piece of land, a strip cut along the coast for less than thirty miles, and inland for a few more. Compared in size with the neighbouring Negev, and the adjacent Sinai Peninsula, Gaza is like the eye of a needle. There are only a few roads on the map. The map is probably obsolete and shows where Israeli settlements had once been where now there are none. Israeli roads, too, have been turned to rubble and the flyovers mined by the Israel Defence Force prior to evacuation. The small yellow inch of your map reveals absolutely nothing about Gaza. But in the southeast corner, butted up to the borders with Egypt and Israel, the mapmakers have printed the cartographers symbol for an international airport. Gaza International Airport, it says.
The airport itself was opened in November 1998 at a ceremony attended by Bill Clinton. It was fully operational until December 2001, when three Israeli tanks and an armoured bulldozer damaged the runway in an effort to contain the second intifada. But the main terminal building was left untouched. For almost five years, the airport’s staff continued to turn up for work in the morning in spite of the fact that the airport was no longer operational. There were no arrivals and no departures, but the check-in desk was still manned, and the baggage belts were run each day. It must have been a kind of Marie Celeste airport. I see it as one of those peculiar situations which one comes across in these places. Reality borders the absurd, and you can’t quite work out if the whole thing is comedy or tragedy.
During the summer war with Lebanon, the IDF took the opportunity to finish the job, bombing and vandalising the terminal building. Before they left the airport their bulldozer scraped the initials IDF in Hebrew into the tarmac at the front of the terminal building. It can only be read from the sky. Now, the airport is being stripped for materials by local looters. It is a ghostly place. As the sky darkened, the looters arrived for another shift. I could hear them at a distance, yelping and singing as they tore the wiring from electrical panels in the control room.