Atarot Airport

When travelling from Jerusalem to anywhere in the northern West Bank, most people will pass the notorious Qalandiya checkpoint. Maybe you made the trip yourself? On the Jerusalem side there is a curious expanse of concrete which would puzzle anyone new to the area. In a land were territory is always hotly contested it may seem strange that there is an acre of prime real estate sitting completely empty within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The reason is that this was once the home of Jerusalem's ill-fated airport.

Kufr Aqab and Qalandiya
The airport was the first to be built in Israel-Palestine, back in 1920 by the British. After World War One Britain controlled the whole area as a League of Nations mandate and built the airstrip as their main entry point for any equipment or personnel. In 1931 they expropriated 200 dunams from the nearby Jewish village of Atarot, itself only founded just before WWI by Zionist Youth, and expanded the airport. It served regular British commercial use until 1948, when the mandate came to an end. As civil war raged around him, Sir Alan Cunningham, the final High Commissioner for Palestine, became the very last Briton to leave Jerusalem by taking a plane to the port of Haifa, before unfurling the Union Jack here for the last time, and sailing back home.

The 1949 armistice between Israel and Jordan saw the airport firmly in Jordanian territory and regular flights resumed there soon after. In 1967 the airport changed hands again, with Israel's victory in the 'Six day war'. A few weeks after the war, the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were hastily redrawn and one key strategic point that was considered essential to include in the newly enlarged city, was of course the airport. That is why today's Jerusalem municipal boundaries extend a long way north in a finger-shape almost as far as Ramallah. As well as claiming the airport for Jerusalem, the Palestinian village of Qufar Aqab was possibly inadvertently also included. This was not of any great importance at the time, but became critically important later in the story. More on this in a moment.

After Israel became the third force to control the airport in 19 years, they too heavily invested in the infrastructure there and an expanded airport was used fairly successfully by them for many years. However, because it was in Occupied Territory, flights were largely limited to domestic trips, mostly to the Red Sea city of Eilat.

The next major change occurred in 2000 with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, when once again the airport found itself at the front line of conflict. It was fired upon numerous times, the tarmac badly damaged and the control tower itself hit by rockets. Therefore, on 27 July, 2001, the Israeli Airport Authority handed it over to the IDF for military use. The agreement was that the army would be responsible for any repairs, if and when the uprising died down, and that then it would be returned to civilian usage.

On 1 July, 2003, the last soldiers who had been based there moved out but the airport did not return to use. Instead, the West Bank barrier (security fence/separation wall) was built around its perimeter and the massive Qalandiya checkpoint constructed at one end. Remember the small village Qafr Aqab? Although since '67 it is part of Jerusalem, the wall was built between the village and the airport. Today this has led to the strange scenario where those living in Qufar Aqab are Jerusalem residents, paying municipal taxes, with blue (Israeli) IDs, but they have to cross a checkpoint to get anywhere else in 'their' city. Municipal services barely function on the 'other' side of the wall, yet the numbers living there have sky rocketed as the tight Israeli building regulations are not enforced so dangerously tall buildings go some way to eliviating the crushing housing shortage. The high buildings nearby greatly reduce the chances of the airport reopening, but it does allow people to maintain their permanent residency status and is one of only a few places where both West Bank and Jerusalem Palestinians can live in the same home. You can find out more about this issue on our Greater Jerusalem tour.

During the heady early days of the Oslo Accords, there were plans that the airport could function as a Palestinian link to the rest of the world, run by the Palestinian Authority, or even that it could be a shared airport with customs control on each side to both East and West Jerusalem; Tel Aviv and Ramallah. This seems a long way off today. Instead, weeds have taken over and the only vehicles taxing on the runway are the multitude of buses ferrying people from Damascus Gate to Qalandiya. It remains a sad example of how the inability to share a precious resource has left both sides worse off. Jerusalem, and indeed the Palestinian territories, remain without an airport to this day with Tel Aviv or Amman the closest other options.

Incidentally, the airport featured heavily in the movie World War Z, during the memorable scene were Brad Pitt escapes a besieged Jerusalem as zombies pile over the walls and onto the tarmac. You can see it below.

The film used heavy CGI which rendered the airport barely recognisable, but for a much more realistic view, you can also check out this video, or of course join us for a tour! Our Bethlehem-Ramallah tour crosses the Qalandiya checkpoint and visits the airport every Monday and Wednesday.


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