U.S. halts flights to Israel as Mideast fighting continues

07/22/2014 10:45 PM

07/22/2014 10:45 PM

American and European air carriers suspended flights to Israel on Tuesday after a rocket landed near the country’s international airport as fighting between Israeli forces and Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip entered its third week.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it had ordered U.S. airlines to suspend flights from the United States to Israel “for a period of up to 24 hours,” citing safety concerns. The European Aviation Safety Agency said it would issue a bulletin with a “strong recommendation” that airlines avoid Israel.

The airline cancellations came after a rocket crashed into a house in Yehud, a town about a mile from Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv is about 53 miles north of the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops have moved in to root out Hamas militants who have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel in recent weeks.

The State Department had issued a warning Monday advising U.S. citizens to delay “non-essential travel to Israel and the West Bank,” owing to the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. The travel warning noted that long-range rockets from Gaza have reached Tel Aviv.

The imposition of a flight ban at the height of the tourist season brought an unprecedented economic dimension to Israel’s Gaza military campaign. The United States hadn’t imposed a similar ban during other recent fighting over Gaza, and its imposition was immediately protested by Israeli officials.

As Israeli forces intensified air and artillery strikes in support of ground troops in the Gaza Strip, the death toll among Palestinians passed 630, 75 percent of them civilians, including 146 children, according to the United Nations. The Israeli army says it has killed at least 160 militants in ground combat.

Two Israeli civilians and 27 soldiers have died in the conflict, according to the army.

There was little reason to expect the violence to subside soon. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in Cairo in an effort to bring an end to the fighting, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, but there were no signs of a breakthrough toward arranging a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said that a soldier presumed dead was missing in action two days after the militant Islamist group Hamas claimed it had captured him in combat, giving his name and military identification number.

Shortly after Tuesday’s flight suspensions were announced, militants in Gaza fired a volley of rockets toward the airport area, triggering warning sirens there and in neighboring towns. Residents took shelter as some rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. No casualties or damage were reported.

An FAA “Notice to Airmen” said that “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben-Gurion International Airport by U.S. operators are forbidden until further advised.”

The flight ban comes on the heels of last week’s downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. Airlines have since rerouted planes to avoid the area over eastern Ukraine where pro-Soviet separatists are battling the Ukrainian army.

U.S. authorities were discussing restrictions on U.S. flights to Israel even before the Malaysia Airlines disaster, an Obama administration official told McClatchy. FAA officials said that similar notices had been issued because of conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

United Airlines, U.S. Airways and Delta Air Lines said they were suspending service to Israel until further notice.

Delta Air Lines’ only daily flight to Israel was in the air when the FAA notice was issued. The flight had departed New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and was approaching Israel when the rocket landed near the airport. The flight was diverted to Paris.

Germany’s flagship air carrier Lufthansa, which includes Swiss Internatinal Air Lines, Germanwings and Austrian Airlines, said it had decided to suspend flights to Israel for two days. Air France and the Dutch airline KLM also said they had suspended flights, as well as Air Canada.

Israel’s Transportation Ministry urged the airlines to reverse their decision, saying Israel’s main airport was “safe for landings and departures.”

“Ben Gurion airport is safe and completely guarded, and there is no reason whatsoever that American companies would stop their flights and hand terror a prize,” the ministry said in a statement.

Israel’s national carrier El Al is continuing its flights on schedule.

Yossi Fatael, managing director of the Israeli travel agents association, told Israel Radio that the flight suspensions were a “terrible blow” that would cause “tremendous” harm at the height of the tourist season.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, complained that on Sunday an Israeli shell hit one of its schools in the Gaza Strip where 300 people had sought shelter, injuring a child.

On Monday, when agency officials returned to the site to investigate, there was further shelling, “seriously endangering the lives of U.N. humanitarian workers and displaced civilians,” the agency said.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, the agency’s commissioner-general, called the shelling “a serious violation of United Nations premises” and called for an immediate investigation.

The agency says that 118,000 Palestinians displaced by the fighting have sought refuge in its schools across the Gaza Strip.

In another development, the U.N. agency said that for the second time it had found rockets stored in one of its vacant schools, near two other school buildings housing 3,000 displaced people.

The agency condemned what it called a “flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.”

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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