Palestinian Airport Opens

Taking a major step toward statehood, Palestinians on Tuesday opened Gaza International Airport.

An Egypt Air flight was the first to land on the desert tarmac in the southern Gaza Strip, arriving at 8:30 a.m. to the cheers of dozens of Palestinian dignitaries waiting on the ground.

But the emotional highlight was the touchdown of the first Palestinian Airlines plane, a Fokker 50. After landing, the pilot and co-pilot raised Palestinian flags high above their heads as they descended the stairway.

A crowd of thousands of Palestinians who had pushed their way onto the airfield to join the celebrations chanted "God is great."

"You are a beautiful sight," Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat later told the Palestinian crew in the VIP lounge, lavishly decorated with deep red Oriental carpets and wall mosaics.

Arafat walked from the lounge to the tarmac to greet each of the seven planes that landed.

"This is a preparation for the declaration of the Palestinian state," Arafat said, smiling broadly and flashing a victory sign.

On Wednesday, Arafat joined the list of passengers to use the new airport when he embarked on a flight to Paris.

Israel controls Palestinian airspace and has the authority to shut down the airfield at any time. It will monitor arriving passengers and cargo and can keep travelers or goods out if it considers them a danger to Israeli security. Disputes over security arrangements delayed the airport opening for more than two years.

The $75 million airport will provide a boost to the troubled Palestinian economy, permitting the export of Palestinian flowers and farm produce that had been shipped out via Israel, often with delays.

The airport also will make it easier for Palestinians to travel abroad. Until now, their only options were to get permission to enter Israel and fly out of Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv or travel by land to Jordan and catch flights there.

Until a land route between the West Bank and Gaza opens next month, Palestinians living in the West Bank will still need a special permit to cross Israel to get to the airport.

Israel's government does not permit Israelis to use the Palestinian airport, citing security reasons. However, Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said Tuesday that might change.

The opening of the airport was negotiated during last month's U.S.-sponsored Mideast summit near Washington. As part of the peace accord, Israel also withdrew troops in the northern West Bank last week and released 250 Palestinian prisoners.

Gaza International's Oriental style includes graceful arches and elaborate tiles imported from Morocco. The airport has one passenger terminal and a two-mile-long runway.

In the first weeks, airport operations will have to improvise. The control tower has no controls, the check-in counter has no computers, and the runway lacks floodlights.

Other gea such as X-ray machines and electromagnetic equipment were being inspected for safety standards, Israeli officials said.

Portable control equipment in a van guided Tuesday's flights. Passengers will be checked in at the Rafah border crossing a 10-minute bus ride away. Until the floodlights arrive, there will be no night flights.

Despite its shortcomings, many Palestinians consider the airport a big step toward independence.

"Now we will be able to travel without the Israeli procedures that we usually must go through," said student Khaled Salmeh, who plans to fly to Saudi Arabia next month for a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest site.

Commercial flights are scheduled to begin operating from Gaza International next week.