Halted flights to and from Israel strand travelers, complicate U.S. bid for cease-fire


All U.S. and some other international carriers halted Israel routes after a rocket strike near Tel Aviv’s airport. (Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

— Ben Gurion International Airport is usually packed with travelers in the peak tourism season of mid-July. But on Wednesday, one day after all U.S. and other major international airlines halted flights to and from Israel, the summer traffic had slowed to a trickle.

The 24-hour flight stoppage, prompted by a Federal Aviation Administration order Tuesday, came after shrapnel from a rocket fired by Gaza Strip militants reached the vicinity of the airport. That left thousands of homebound Israelis stranded abroad and international visitors stuck in Israel.

By Wednesday morning, stories were surfacing of incoming flights turning around in midair, and Israeli airlines had announced extra flights to retrieve passengers stranded in Europe and Turkey.

The FAA lifted the ban late Wednesday night, saying in a statement that before making the decision, the agency had “worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation.”

U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, meanwhile, arrived at the airport here — FAA ban notwithstanding — to attempt to bring about an end to the bloody hostilities between Israel and the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group Hamas — a difficult task that could now be further complicated by the FAA decision to bring air traffic to Israel to a halt.

On Tuesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Kerry and urged him to intervene to resume flights. And Hamas — which had warned international carriers in the first days of the two-week-old conflict that it could bring down a commercial jet — was likely feeling empowered by its ability to halt entire fleets.

“This is a real game-changer,” said Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group, a geopolitical risk and research consultancy. “If anything, the world will now see how dangerous Hamas really is,” he said, adding that Hamas can now boast of doing “something that no other Arab army has been able to do — target all Israeli cities and hit the airport.”

Jonathan Rynhold, an expert in U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, said that the flight ban would probably not affect the U.S. role as a mediator in the short-term conflict, but in the long term it could embolden Israel’s security demands, making the chance of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal even harder.

“It could definitely reinforce Israel’s position on this issue,” he said, noting that Israel’s security, and its demands for a demilitarized Palestinian state, had been one of the main sticking points of U.S.-led peace negotiations that collapsed in April.

Liza Dvir, a spokeswoman for the Israel Airport Authority, said that more than 80 scheduled flights had been canceled Tuesday night and Wednesday, leaving only Israeli and a handful of foreign airliners operating. Rockets fired by Gaza militants continued Wednesday to reach areas near the airport, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

“I don’t understand why they decided to cancel flights now,” said Hani Azoulai, an Israeli who was at Ben Gurion about to leave for a vacation in Cyprus on the Israeli airline Arkia. “These rockets have been hitting Tel Aviv for more than two weeks. Why did they not cancel flights before?”

“I think it’s ridiculous that they’ve canceled the flights,” said Eli Kanter, who was returning to his native Boston via Israel’s El Al airline after a 10-day organized tour. “Before I came here, I was worried about safety, but now I have spent time here I realize it’s very safe.”

Children paying a terrible price in Gaza

Dvir said that the airport authority had taken extra security precautions for all incoming and outgoing flights since hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza reignited on July 8. Many rockets have reached areas near the airport, but most were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

“Ben Gurion Airport is one of the safest airports in the world,” she said.

Despite that, several airlines, including Delta and German carrier Lufthansa said Wednesday that they would extend the ban on flights to and from Israel, citing security concerns. Later Wednesday, the FAA extended its ban for up to another 24 hours. The halted flights came less than a week after a missile, possibly fired by pro-Russia separatists, downed a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine. All 298 passengers and crew members aboard the Kuala Lumpur-bound flight were killed.

“I am surprised that civil airlines have not canceled flights sooner,” said Neri Yarkoni, former director general of Israel’s Civil Aviation Administration. “As far as I am concerned, civil aviation should be 100 percent safe, not
99 percent, and no one can guarantee 100 percent in this situation.”

He said that the last time major airlines canceled their Israel routes was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Iraq fired Scud missiles at the Jewish state. That was before Israel had powerful antimissile defense systems.

“I think that if it had not been for the plane that went down over Ukraine, they would not have made this decision,” said Joe Freeman, who was returning home to Marietta, Ga., after two weeks in Israel with his girlfriend, Lori Brickman.

“We were told yesterday at
5 p.m. that our Delta flight scheduled for last night had been canceled, and we were left with no contingency plan,” Brickman said, adding that she contacted her travel agent in the United States to rearrange the flight.

Despite the halted flights, the war talk and the continual barrage of rockets from Gaza fired into Tel Aviv, where they were staying. Brickman said of her visit: “We were calm and we felt safe in Israel, and now we feel lucky that we got to spend another night here.”

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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