Protesting Sdeh Dov Closure, Eilat to Go On Strike

YERUSHALAYIM -
Aerial view of the southern Israeli city of Eilat. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

If you’re planning a trip to Eilat, try to avoid doing it Tuesday; the city won’t be open for much of the day. In protest over the planned closure of Tel Aviv’s Sdeh Dov Airport, Eilat will be shutting down city services for much of Tuesday – and will not allow anyone into town from 10:00 on. Schools will close at 11:00, and students, residents and workers will join in a mass protest. Many stores and malls are expected to go on strike at least for part of the day.

According to both Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzchak Halevi and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, the closure of the airport will constitute a “death blow” for the southern city. At a press conference at the airport last Thursday, the two appealed to the government not to close Sdeh Dov. “We must reverse the closure decision – it is the smart thing to do, and the right thing to do, and the merciful thing to do,” Halevi said, adding that he and other residents would go on a hunger strike beginning Tuesday until the decision to close Sdeh Dov is reversed.

Appearing at the press conference with the mayors were several cancer patients, who travel back and forth to the center of the country for treatment. “Hundreds of Eilat residents travel to the Tel Aviv area for treatment, and many doctors go to Eilat to treat patients,” said Halevi. “Many doctors have told me that they won’t travel the long route they will have to take in order to get to Eilat.” Bad enough that patients and doctors now need to travel a half hour out of town, to Ramon Airport, since the closure of Eilat’s airport; traveling another half hour to Ben Gurion Airport will be too much for either. “In essence, this decision is closing the city of Eilat,” Halevi said.

Huldai, calling the decision to close the airport “stupid,” said that real estate interests were behind the closure. “They are building airports in the entire world, and here they are closing them. If it were not for the real estate interests, no one would be talking about closing the airport.” Ben Gurion Airport will not be able to handle the traffic that Sdeh Dov now handles, Huldai said, adding that “the closure of Sdeh Dov is a problem not just for Eilat, but for the entire country.”

Sdeh Dov, which takes up hundreds of dunams of some of the most valuable land in Tel Aviv, was slated for closure already in 2017, after the Knesset voted in 2015 to authorize the closure. The airport’s civilian flight runways are used strictly for domestic flights, mostly to and from Eilat. The flights are to be moved to Ben Gurion Airport, while the land that currently constitutes the airport will be developed for homes and shopping. The military section of the airport was set to continue operating until 2019. In 2017, a new Knesset law extended civilian operations at the airport until 2019 as well.

The date for its final closure is currently set for July 1st. After that, Arkia and IsrAir, which account for nearly all the civilian air traffic at Sdeh Dov, are supposed to transfer all flights to Ben Gurion Airport. Several officials, including MK Bezalel Smotrich, have promised that they will try to keep the airport open. At a recent meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee, Smotrich railed against the closure of the airport, saying that it would be “the end of the Open Skies policy” of the Transportation Ministry that has brought the prices of air travel down.

“Ben Gurion Airport cannot absorb the flights that currently use Sdeh Dov,” said Smotrich. “There is a limit to the number of flights the airport can handle. This is what all professionals who are familiar with the situation tell us. The only party that is really pushing the closure is the Finance Ministry, which is looking forward to the income from real estate and other taxes. We plan to propose a law that will reflect the concerns of many Israelis and professionals, who take a wider view of the situation beyond the immediate payoff,” he said.