The first to land at Dhanaieh in the Gaza Strip was an Egyptian aircraft, which arrived at 8.30am to the cheers of the waiting Palestinian dignitaries. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, walked on to the asphalt to great each of the seven aircraft as it drew to a halt.
The loudest cheers were for the arrival of the first Palestinian Airlines flight, a Fokker 50, whose crew waved Palestinian flags as they descended the stairway. "You are a beautiful sight," said Mr Arafat as he welcomed them into the VIP airport lounge. He added later: "This is a preparation for the declaration of a Palestinian state."
The new airport, whose opening has been delayed, underlines the limits as well as the progress of Mr Arafat's attempt to win self-determination for the Palestinians. Israel continues to control the airspace and can shut it whenever it wishes. It also has control of which countries can fly to and from Gaza and on what routes.
The Israelis will monitor incoming passengers and cargo and keep them from entering Gaza if they consider them a danger to their security. Plain- clothes Israeli security men were evident yesterday.
Shlomo Dror, an Israeli spokesman, said: "This is their [Palestinian] autonomy. It is not a state of their own."
Fayez Zaidan, the director of the Palestinian Aviation Authority, said "99 per cent" of the airport's operations would be in Palestinian hands and that the Israeli security personnel would remain in the background.
He added: "It is an historic moment for the Palestinians and it is one of the most important symbols of Palestinian identity."
Among the aircraft to land were a Royal Air Maroc 737, a Royal Jordanian flight carrying Prince Feisal, son of the Jordanian king, and a Spanish Hercules military transport aircraft.
Mr Zaidan said the Palestinian national airline planned to start commercial flights next week to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to Cairo, and to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Palestinians from the West Bank will need a permit to reach Gaza.
The Palestinians also hope that the airport will relieve the economic pressure on Gaza, which has been unable to export many of its products because of Israeli closures and border restrictions.
The opening of the airport, which cost $75m (pounds 45m), was negotiated at the Israeli- Palestinian talks at Wye in Maryland last month after it had been delayed for two years.
It has one passenger terminal and a two-mile-long runway. However its control tower has no controls, the check-in counters no computers and the runway is short of floodlights.
Mr Zaidan said Israel has been holding up the equipment for a year and wants $630,000 to release it. Portable equipment in a van guided in yesterday's flights.
In the middle of celebrations Palestinian police broke up a demonstration by the families of Palestinian prisoners still held in Israeli jails.#