FAR FROM UTOPIA.

Author:Hammond, Andrew
 
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In the wake of the latest Middle East talks in London, Andrew Hammond reports from Gaza on a dream that is fast becoming a nightmare.

At the southernmost edge of the Gaza Strip, within view of Egyptian border towers, stands the new Gaza International Airport. It's empty save for a few dozen or so workers still finishing off the VIP arrival hall.

They are working here for $20 dollars a day, although they could be earning $50 in Israel. They would rather be here. "I'm doing something for my country," says 21-year-old labourer Hassan.

But although the Gaza airport has been ready to begin operations for a year Israel refuses to let the Palestinian National Authority use it.

Navigation and electronic equipment donated by Germany and Spain are stranded in Israeli ports, explains air traffic controller Said Bashir. Despite that, he says, "I could have this airport ready to operate in 40 minutes if I got the go-ahead."

Recently, Israel asked for a new checking zone inside the airport where Palestinian baggage can be surreptitiously searched by Israelis.

The latest dispute is over the international reference of the airport. Israel wants it to be registered with the International Aviation Authority as an Israeli airport in Gaza. It's not just the airport -- development of Gaza harbour and the industrial zone are also indefinitely on hold. But there is no doubt the PNA sees the airport as the key to reversing their economic fortunes, if only in Gaza.

As Minister for Planning Nabil Shaath says, "We are dying to have that airport open." Yet, still it stands as a monument to the zero trust level that has brought the economic life of Palestinians to a state worse than that which prevailed during the Intifada, years before the PNA came into existence. `Palestine' has been reduced to bantustans sectioned off from each other and from Israel in which the economy deteriorates and the institutions of civil society fight a losing battle to rein in the apparatus of a Palestinian police state.

Five years on, Palestinians are asking themselves what has Oslo done for them. According to Shaath, during the Intifada the Palestinian economy was growing at five per cent per annum. Now per capita income in Gaza has slumped by around a third and private sector business is down 75 per cent. The PNA says Israel's economic blockade is costing it $10 million a day. That is stretching the faith of ordinary Palestinians in their elected government. "If an election were held for...

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