With an honor guard seeing him off, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat flew to Paris today on his first flight from the new Gaza International Airport, which opened Tuesday.
Arafat arrived on Flight 001 from Gaza Airport, a vital link for Palestinians bringing goods in and out of Gaza and a powerful symbol of independence.
Arafat's plane took off while Israeli security officials in civilian clothing watched from the runway. Israel maintains security control over the airport.
"This is a historical event that ushers in a new era in Palestinian history," said Brig. Gen. Fayez Zeidan, chairman of the Palestinian Civil Aviation Authority.
Zeidan said 001 would be Arafat's official flight number.
Top advisers Nabil Shaath and Nabil Abourdeneh accompanied Arafat to Paris, where he was planning a day of meetings with President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. He also was to meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is in Paris for a Franco-African summit.
Zeidan said commercial flights from Gaza would begin next week. Those include daily flights from Gaza to Jordan and back. Air Morocco also has agreed to have two flights weekly to and from Gaza.
Under the airport agreement negotiated during last month's U.S.-sponsored Middle East summit in Maryland, Israel will continue to control the airspace and can shut down the airport at any time.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem today, Israeli Finance Minister Yaacov Neeman offered to step aside if it would help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu create a more broadly based government to pursue peace with Palestinians.
"A unity government will require a reshuffling of the Cabinet, and I have no personal interest -- I only see the national interest," Neeman said.
He said he had been promoting the formation of a unity government of Netanyahu's Likud and Labor, the main opposition party, for months because of the fateful decisions he said Israel faced negotiating an end to the conflict with the Palestinians.
The other option, calling a general election in early 1999 instead of late 2000, would only yield results similar to the 1996 votes and cost a lot, Neeman said.
Netanyahu, trying to boost his right-wing coalition shaken by his deal ceding West Bank land to Palestinians last month, canceled a trip to Switzerland today while trying to woo former Foreign Minister David Levy into his government. Levy's return would strengthen Netanyahu.