Israel declared that Ben-Gurion Airport was safe and said there was no reason to “hand terror a prize” by halting flights.
The rare flight ban came as Israel grappled with news that a soldier went missing after an attack in the Gaza Strip, raising the possibility he was abducted, a scenario that could complicate intense diplomatic efforts to end the two-week conflict.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets toward Israel since fighting began July 8, but most — including several heading toward Tel Aviv — fell harmlessly into open areas or were shot out of the sky by the “Iron Dome” defense system, keeping Israeli casualties low.
Tuesday’s rocket attack was the closest to the airport so far, said police spokeswoman Luba Samri, and largely destroyed a house, slightly injuring one Israeli in the nearby Tel Aviv suburb of Yehud.
Aviation authorities reacted swiftly. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration prohibited American airlines from flying to Tel Aviv for 24 hours “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.” Later, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an advisory to airlines, saying it “strongly recommends” airlines avoid the airport.
Germany’s Lufthansa, Air France, Air Canada, Alitalia, Dutch KLM, Britain’s easyJet, Turkish Airlines and Greece’s Aegean Airlines were among those carriers canceling flights to Tel Aviv over safety concerns amid the increasing violence.
Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called on the U.S. aviation authority to reconsider, calling the flight ban “unnecessary” and saying Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system provided cover for civil aviation.
“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,” his office said in a statement.
However, international airlines and passengers have grown more anxious about safety since last week, when a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. While Hamas rockets aren’t guided missiles, they still can cause massive damage to an aircraft. For instance, unguided mortar fire in Tripoli from a militia battling to control its international airport destroyed an Airbus A330 on the ground over the weekend.
The Tel Aviv airport is Israel’s main gateway to the world, and Hamas militants have said they hoped to target it to disrupt life in Israel.
Another Hamas objective was to abduct an Israeli soldier, and Israeli fears over such an occurrence were revisited Tuesday when the military announced that a soldier was missing following a deadly battle in Gaza, where the Israelis are fighting Hamas militants in the third such war in just over five years.
The military said Sgt. Oron Shaul was among seven soldiers in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile in a battle in Gaza over the weekend. The other six have been confirmed as dead, but no remains have been identified as Shaul’s.
Hamas claims to have abducted him and has flaunted his name and military ID number to try to back the claim. Military officials say the soldier is almost certainly dead, but it would be a nightmare scenario for the Jewish state if even his remains were in the hands of Hamas.
Past abductions of Israeli soldiers have turned into painful drawn-out affairs and Israel has paid a heavy price in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remains held by its enemies. The prolonged saga of Gilad Schalit, a soldier captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006 and held for more than five years before he was swapped for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, still weighs heavily in Israel.
“We understand the terror organization is looking for some leverage and, as cynical as it sounds, one type of leverage is bargaining over parts of bodies,” said Lior Lotan, a reserve Israeli colonel and former head of its POW and MIA department.
Israeli airstrikes continued to pummel Gaza tunnels, rocket launchers and militants on the 15th day of the war Tuesday as diplomatic efforts intensified to end fighting that has killed at least 630 Palestinians and 29 Israelis — 27 soldiers and two civilians.
Israel says its troops have killed hundreds of Hamas gunmen, while Gaza officials say the vast majority have been civilians, many of them children.