Remembering Qalandia, Jerusalem's stolen airport

Remembering Qalandia, Jerusalem's stolen airport
Comment: If Israel proceeds with settlement expansion at Qalandia, another sliver of Palestinian history will be lost to colonisation, writes Ramona Wadi.
5 min read
28 May, 2020
Qalandia airport has been closed to civilian traffic since the second Intifada [TNA illustration]
Each time Israel has embarked upon new colonial settlement expansion, the international community has contextualised the violation as an obstacle to the two-state paradigm, and to the creation of "an independent and viable Palestinian state".

To put it succinctly, settlement expansion hinders international diplomacy, which is the main concern of the international community.

In February of this year, Qalandia airport featured again in the media, when the Israeli government announced a plan for thousands of settlement dwellings to be constructed on the site. Up to 9,000 housing units are planned on 1,200 acres of land which include the Qalandia airport site.

Qalandia airport was built by the British during the British Mandate in 1920, first serving as a military airfield and from 1948 until 1967 functioning as a civilian airport.

The 1967 war and Israel's military occupation over Palestinian land altered the airport's function and its name; changing it to 'Atarot' as the first measure towards erasing traces of Palestinian memory.

The site was illegally annexed by Israel in 1970 and used mainly for domestic flights to Tel Aviv until the start of the second Intifada in 2000.

Plans to convert the airport site into a colonial settlement are not new. In 2012, 2015 and 2017, the Israeli government had already proposed settlement expansion encompassing the area. The Israeli NGO Peace Now described the previous announcements as "declarations of intent".

However, as attention shifts once again to the site, it seems likely the Israeli government had not abandoned previous plans, but was merely waiting for a more opportune moment to erase another site of Palestinian historical memory.

Plans to convert the airport site into a colonial settlement are not new

That moment was awarded to Israel by US President Donald Trump with the so-called "Deal of the Century" - a veneer for annexation which Israel is planning to implement in July.

Qalandia was earmarked as a development site for Palestinian tourism in the US plan, to "support Muslim tourism to Jerusalem and its holy sites." Yet, Trump's first overture to Israel at the start of his presidency was to unilaterally declare Jerusalem as Israel's capital. 

Israel's plans to expand settlements over the Qalandia airport site appear to override the US Deal of the Century, though settlement expansion is in line with dispossessing Palestinians of their land - the ultimate aim of US-Israeli scheming.

Qalandia's significance, therefore, should not be tied to mainstream narratives about the two-state compromise, and how this is hindered by ongoing expansion. In reality, Israel plans to erase a site of memory which is tied to freedom of movement - a right removed by Israeli colonial expansion. Prioritising two-state diplomacy at the expense of remembering the colonial context, only harms the Palestinian people.

PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi expressed both nostalgia and anger in a tweet regarding the possible settlement expansion. "Qalandia Airport was that magical place from which as a child I first felt the freedom of flying. Like the rest of Palestinian lands, it is being stolen, violated and distorted to become a symbol of oppression and captivity."

Read more:  Annexation in the shadow of the Nakba

Restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement are usually associated with Gaza and the multitude of checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. As checkpoints encroach over the external understanding of Palestine, it is difficult to imagine other eradicated means of movement. Overlooking the fact that Palestinians were once connected to the rest of the world is significant, for it reflects the extent to which Israel dictates what is known of Palestine by persistently erasing its past.

The apartheid wall which separates the Qalandia airport site from the occupied West Bank also aids in the Israeli plan of erasure and oblivion. Again, by obliterating free movement, Israel is also eliminating visual memory.

Impeding access to Palestinian territory is one way in which Israel exerts control, but Palestinian memory is strong, and Palestinians are dedicated to the transmission of their history through generations. However, as Israel well knows, the colonial apartheid system it has implemented affects the process of recollection. For Palestinians who face daily challenges to their survival, managing their basic needs is a priority, which takes precedence over nurturing memory. 

Palestinians will remember Qalandia, but more pressing needs inevitably take priority. A similar calculation happens at the checkpoints - the need overrides the humiliation for Palestinians working in Israeli settlements.  

Qalandia should highlight the links between dispossession and the elimination of Palestinian freedom of movement

Palestinian filmmaker Nahel Awwad describes the site as "not only occupied, it hardly exists in the memory of my generation." If Israel proceeds with settlement expansion at Qalandia, another sliver of Palestinian history will be lost to colonisation.

Meanwhile, what will the reaction of the international community be? The politics of compartmentalising each Israeli violation is not conducive to providing a complete view on dispossession and how this impacts freedom of movement and erasure of land and memory.

For the international community, Israeli violations are directly linked to the damage they inflict upon the two-state paradigm. Concern for the Palestinian people is a lesser detail which is never allowed to take centre state in international politics, as global leaders navigate the duplicity of preserving Israeli colonialism and calling for an illusion of a Palestinian state.

The two-state compromise enables land theft. The international community must clarify this fact, rather than disseminate statements that hide global complicity in Palestinian dispossession. Qalandia is no exception.

The alteration of a site which was once a key feature of Palestinian travel must not serve Israeli and international interests.

On the contrary, Qalandia should highlight the links between dispossession and the elimination of Palestinian freedom of movement, against the expectation of the US and the international community. Two-state diplomacy does not help Palestinians enjoy free movement, and the Deal of the Century reinforces the elimination of what is left of free movement.

Qalandia is a reminder of a past before Zionist colonisation, before the world became too steeped in oblivion to realise it is normalising the Israeli narrative on every level.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.