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Palestinians fly to Cyprus in Israeli airport pilot program

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JERUSALEM — Several dozen Palestinians flew into Cyprus Monday from an airport in southern Israel as part of a pilot program to allow Palestinians from the occupied West Bank to fly abroad.

The move was part of a series of moves Israel says it is making to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in both the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Critics say the measures do not address the daily humiliations of the decades-long occupation and do not pave the way for a Palestinian state.

Forty-three residents of the West Bank cities of Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and Nablus flew from Ramon Airport to Larnaca, Cyprus, said Amir Assi, a strategic consultant who coordinated the flights.

COGAT, the Israeli military body responsible for the management of civil affairs in the West Bank, confirmed that Palestinians were boarding an international flight from Ramon airport for the first time and that “the work of the personnel is still in progress” to facilitate scheduled flights for Palestinians.

The newly opened Ramon Airport is located near the Israeli resort of Eilat, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) south of Jerusalem. It is smaller than Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport outside of Tel Aviv, has fewer flights and destinations, and is less crowded.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip do not have their own airport and must apply for a hard-to-obtain airport permit to use Ben Gurion Airport. These permits are not approved, if any, until shortly before take-off.

Those from the West Bank wishing to fly abroad must travel to Amman, the Jordanian capital, through a crowded Israeli border crossing. The crossing is not open 24 hours a day, forcing many travelers to pay to stay at a nearby hotel before their flight. There are also travel costs and transit fees that make travel an additional financial burden.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since the militant group Hamas took power in 2007, and all movement in and out of the territory is severely restricted.

The airport authority said earlier this month there would be two weekly flights for Palestinians from Ramon to Antalya, Turkey, later in August and flights to Istanbul would begin in September.

Israel captured both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war, and the Palestinians are seeking them for a future state. There have been no substantive peace talks for over a decade.