Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the world has been observing the gradual disintegration of any hope for Palestinian statehood. There is no clearer evidence of this than the severe neglect and active restriction and destruction of both Palestine’s historical and newly established infrastructure in the occupied territories. Specifically, transportation infrastructure in Palestine stands as a broken witness to the expansion of the Israeli state at the expense of the Palestinians.
While Israel seizes more control over Palestinian land and develops transportation infrastructure that serves only its own “desirables” – consisting of its citizens, army, settlers and tourists – Israeli governments have been imposing ongoing paralysing restrictions on the Palestinians and actively banning or destroying any prospect for the formation of an independent Palestinian state. Arguably, the backbone of any functioning state is its transportation network, and by targeting Palestinian transportation infrastructure, Israel is trying to break the back of the Palestinian bid for statehood.
The Jaffa–Jerusalem railway, which opened in 1892 under Ottoman rule, was the first railway to be built in Palestine and one of the first to be constructed in the Middle East. An important economic and social development at the time, the line was operated in turn by the French, the Ottomans and, after World War I, the British who were mandated to administer Palestine. The railway administration was transferred in 1920 to Palestine Railways, a company owned by the British Mandate government.
Prior to the 1948 Palestinian Nakba and establishment of the Israeli state, the Palestine Railways network became the target of frequent Zionist terrorist attacks carried out by organisations such as Irgun, Lehi and Palmach. These included bombing trains, stations, and road and rail links. Deteriorating security led to the closure of the line in 1948 as the British failed to protect the railway; it was later requisitioned and reopened as the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem railway operated by Israel Railways, which began passenger service in 1950.
As such, Israel’s heavy rail infrastructure dates back to before the establishment of the Israeli state, from the days of the Ottomans and the British Mandate. The transfer of power and control to the Israelis has since allowed Israel to expand and progress further as Israeli rail infrastructure continues to undergo constant expansion, manifested in the inauguration of the controversial Jerusalem Light Rail service in 2001.
In a 2009 report, the United Nations Human Rights Council described the Jerusalem Light Rail as infrastructure servicing settlements deemed illegal under international law. The line, which was offered as a means of fast and reliable transport through the city, further strengthens the position of Jewish-only illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and complements a network of roads that has been constructed to connect these settlements to the city centre. The line is still undergoing expansion and plans are in place to connect more settlements from the south to the north of the city. This effectively eliminates further prospects for the internationally-supported two-state solution whereby East Jerusalem would be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Furthermore, the West Bank and Gaza today are not only physically disconnected, but Palestinians living in either territory are generally not permitted to cross to or settle in the other. Only certain cases are allowed through the Israeli-controlled Erez Crossing between the West bank and Gaza, such as patients and businessmen acquiring Israeli permits. Therefore, a railway, or any Palestinian-controlled road network, connecting the West Bank and Gaza is out of the question as any movement or trade between them remains fully under Israeli control.
After prolonged negotiations with Israel, and as part of the 1993 Oslo-Accords, Palestine was “given the right” to build an international airport in Gaza as long as Israel maintained full control of the airspace and flight operations, including routes and schedules, as well as running a “shadow” security system for checking passengers, cargo and aircrafts.
Indeed, the $86 million Gaza International Airport opened in 1998 in a red-carpet ceremony attended by former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and former US President Bill Clinton. “I am standing on Palestinian soil, and I have an airport, I have a flag, I have an airplane. This is our path to the independent Palestinian state,” Ahmad Abdel Rahman, general secretary of the Palestinian Cabinet, told the New York Times at the time.
Overlooking the continued restrictions, the opening of the airport was considered a sign of progress towards the formation of a Palestinian state. Thousands of passengers were flying Palestinian airlines to destinations across the Middle East. Besides its morale-boosting value, the airport was also meant to become an economic lifeline by boosting trade and perhaps bringing in tourists to the Mediterranean coastal strip. Three years later, however, Israel shut down the airport. As fighting intensified with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Israeli F16 jets bombed the airport’s control tower and radar centre and its bulldozers tore up the runway where Palestinian planes had once landed.
For years, Palestinian leadership continued to push for the airport’s re-opening, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Israel has been expanding its main international airport, Ben-Gurion International Airport historically known as Lydda airport, in order to receive large numbers of Jewish immigrants as well as to accommodate the international travel of its citizens and visitors. Lydda airport was built in 1936 during the British Mandate for military purposes. Surrendered by the British in 1948, the newly declared State of Israel took over the airport that same year and has used it for travel ever since.
Today, Palestinians in the occupied territories have to rely on airports in Jordan and Egypt to fly abroad as they are not permitted to use the Ben-Gurion International airport, nor are they permitted to rebuild an airport of their own. For Gaza’s residents, the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing remains the gate to the outside world. As part of Israel’s siege of Gaza, and in coordination with Egypt, Egyptian authorities often close the crossing and only allow specific cases to leave the Strip. Since the military coup of July 2013 that overthrew Mohammad Morsi, Egypt has closed the crossing almost completely. In 2015, the border opened for a total of only 21 days, leaving thousands of patients, students and workers stuck in Gaza.
Once a crossroad for regional trade and travel, the Gaza seaport is the only Mediterranean port closed to shipping. Israel has been in total control of Gaza’s coastline and territorial waters since 1967, placing even further restrictions on the Strip’s trade activity and movement of its residents with the imposition of the siege in 2007.
As part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and after a long series of negotiations with Israel, a $73 million contract for the reconstruction of the Gaza seaport and the training of port personnel was signed in 2000 between the Palestinian Authority and a French-Dutch consortium aiming to complete the project in 2002. Not long after, and with the eruption of the Second Palestinian Intifada, Israeli tanks and bulldozers attacked the port project, destroying buildings that housed some 80 administrative offices for the seaport construction project. This led the European consortium to pull out of the project, making it another casualty of the conflict with Israel.
A functioning harbour in Gaza, developed to incorporate passengers and cargo, would inject life into the Palestinian economy and give Gaza’s residents more access to the world beyond the narrow confines of the besieged coastal enclave.
Not only have movement and trade at the Gaza seaport been affected by Israeli restrictions, fishing activity has also suffered immensely, undermining the livelihoods of many Palestinians who rely on the sea to secure a living. As per the Oslo Accords, Gaza’s fishermen are allowed to sail out into the Mediterranean up to 20 nautical miles (37km). Since the imposition of the siege on Gaza, however, Israel has only allowed them to reach 3 nautical miles (5.6km) with recent agreements extending the limit to 6 nautical miles. Israeli fibres shoot at or confiscate the boats of and arrest fishermen who fish close to the limit or stray further. The UN indicated that this was a violation of the Oslo accord; yet citing security concerns, Israel insists it is another necessary restriction.
A European Parliament resolution on the blockade, following the Israeli military operation against the Turkish humanitarian flotilla that was boarded en route to Gaza in 2010, urged EU Member States to “take steps to ensure the sustainable opening of all the crossing points to and from Gaza, including the port of Gaza, with adequate international end-use monitoring.”
Despite the EU and UN resolutions and continued condemnation of Israel’s incessant violations of international law, as well as the clear failure of the Oslo accords, the disparity between the control and power Israel is allowed to assume over the Palestinians and the shackles and confining limitations placed on Palestinians themselves is reprehensible.
Today, the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank exceeds 400,000, in addition to over 200,000 in East Jerusalem. As Israel continues to expand and devour more Palestinian land, the prospects for a two-state solution shrink even further. Unless the international community pressures Israel into ending its occupation and Palestinians are able to enhance their infrastructure, move freely through their border crossings and engage in free trading activity, then the two-state solutions can be considered dead and buried.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.