JORDAN VALLEY, West Bank, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Engineers in the West Bank
have drawn up plans to turn a strip of desert in the Jordan Valley into an airport where they hope visitors will one day touch down in the independent state of Palestine.
The fate of the project, along with the Palestinian dream of independence, hinges on the course of peace talks with Israel. It would be built far below sea-level on flat desert land north of the Dead Sea, which the Israelis currently control.
Scepticism abounds, even as the United States seeks to revive the 17-year old peace process
aimed at creating a state for the Palestinians on occupied land next to Israel.
The blueprints for Palestine International Airport are part of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad
's effort to push the Palestinians towards that goal by next year.
At a cost of $462 million, the airport is one of the more ambitious elements in the Fayyad plan -- a state-building programme that has won praise from the Palestinian Authority
's Western sponsors.
It can be built in two years, said Mohamad Jaradat, designer of the airport and head of the Palestinian Aviation Authority.
The one-terminal facility will be one of the pillars of the state, Jaradat said, who has helped build airports in Kuala Lumpur, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman.
At the site, there is scant sign of activity. Camels roam the parched landscape and Israeli soldiers fire at targets during a training exercise.
The Palestinians have asked Israel
for permission to start work. As yet, it has not been granted.
For now, the peace process is grounded. U.S.-backed talks have been stalled by a dispute over Jewish settlement
expansion in the West Bank. There is widespread pessimism about the prospects for a deal ending the conflict through the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
BEEN THERE BEFORE?
Reflecting a sense of purpose instilled by Fayyad's state-building project, the Palestinian transport minister says he will push ahead with the airport construction next year with or without Israeli permission.
The pledge rings hollow. The proposed building site is in part of the West Bank which, according to interim peace accords, is under full Israeli control. Known as Area C, the area accounts for 60 percent of the West Bank.
Restrictions in Area C are a major obstacle to the Fayyad plan and Palestinian development in general.
With the help of Western allies, Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, has been able to reform PA ministries and security services and improve roads. But he has been unable to build the industrial parks and railways also set out in his plan.
To Palestinians, talk of a new airport inspires a sense of deja vu. During a previous bout of state-building in the 1990s, in the era of the late leader Yasser Arafat
, the Palestinians built an international airport in the Gaza Strip.
U.S. President Bill Clinton was the most prominent visitor to land at Gaza International Airport, opened to great fanfare in 1998. The Palestinian Authority founded a national carrier, Palestinian Airlines. Optimism swirled around the peace process.
Gaza International Airport is today in ruins -- a symbol of the peace process' collapse into violence when Clinton's diplomacy reached a dead end a decade ago. Most of the violence of the Palestinian Intifada
abated some five years ago.
Today, few Palestinians are able to travel from the Gaza Strip, which has been run by the Hamas
Islamist group since 2007. Most of those who travel do so via the Rafah
crossing to Egypt -- a time-consuming journey involving complicated coordination with the Egyptian authorities. Palestinians travelling from the West Bank mostly do so via Jordan, passing through an immigration terminal in the Israeli-controlled Jordan Valley.
On a bad day, with temperatures in the high 40s celsius, procedures for crossing the Allenby Bridge which spans the Jordan River can take hours.
People are eager to have an airport of their own, said Jaradat.