In the middle of the summer tourist season, the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday temporarily banned all U.S.-based airlines from flying to Israel's main international airport, and European airlines also imposed their own voluntary bans, fearing their flights could get caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’ success in disrupting Israelis' key transport link with the outside world could strike a major psychological blow, signaling a potential threat to a country whose economy is heavily integrated with those of Europe and the United States. Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer wrote that it could "cause untold damage to the country's self-confidence and prove to be the game-changer in this current conflict”.
Mindful of the psychological and political impact of the disruption, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly urged U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for help lifting the 24-hour halt, Ha'aretz reported late Tuesday.
The federally mandated flight stoppages on Delta Air Lines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines came in response to a rocket that was fired by Hamas and hit near Ben Gurion International Airport earlier Tuesday, injuring two people.
Hamas’ makeshift rockets are difficult to accurately aim and rarely cause structural damage or casualties in Israel. But in this case, the group appears to have caused a significant problem for much-more-powerful Israel, which has a sophisticated missile defense system.
The ban dominated the front pages of Israeli media.
The Jerusalem Post's top story reassured Israeli readers with a statement from their own national airline, El Al, saying the carrier would not stop flights. The newspaper reminded readers that "during the 1991 Gulf war, every airline but El Al suspended service to Israel." During that war, Israel faced bombardment by missiles lobbed at it by Saddam Hussein.
The FAA issued a statement saying it has told U.S. carriers that they were prohibited from flying to or from Ben Gurion for 24 hours, after which the situation would be reviewed. The agency said that its notice, which applies only to U.S.-based airlines, was issued in response to the Hamas rocket.
"The FAA immediately notified U.S. carriers when the agency learned of the rocket strike," the agency said in a statement. It also said updated instructions would be provided.
The text of the FAA notice cites "the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza."
The news was met with frustration from Yisrael Katz, Israel's Transportation Minister, who called on airlines to return to their normal routes.
"Ben Gurion is safe for takeoffs and landings and there are no security concerns for aircraft and passengers," he said in a statement. "There is no need for U.S. carriers to suspend flights and reward terrorism."
Israel launched an offensive in Gaza on July 8 with the stated intention of halting missiles sent out of the strip by Hamas, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the occupied West Bank following the killings of three Israeli teenagers, as well as economic hardship due to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Hamas has denied any involvement in the killings of the Israeli youths.
The Israeli campaign started with shelling, as well as naval and aerial bombardment, and on Thursday Israel invaded the narrow and densely populated seaside strip with ground forces. Since then, the casualty count has risen dramatically.
As of Tuesday the conflict had claimed the lives of at least 607 Palestinians, most of them civilians, including many children. On the Israeli side, 27 soldiers and 2 civilians have died in the fighting.
Israel blames the civilian deaths in Gaza on Hamas for placing its rockets near innocents.
The U.S. moves were swiftly followed by flight stoppages from European carriers, including Germany's Lufthansa, Air France and Dutch airline KLM. Air Berlin, Germany's second-largest carrier, said it halted its flights through Wednesday, citing the situation on the ground in Tel Aviv.
Norwegian Air, Europe's third-largest budget airline, is also suspending flights to Tel Aviv until further notice, a company spokeswoman told Norwegian news agency NTB.
British Airways, which flies to Tel Aviv twice daily, said its flights continue to operate normally.
Many of the airlines said customers affected by the halts could change their travel plans without penalty.
The non-U.S. airlines said their stoppages reflected safety concerns in the absence of specific directives.
"This decision was taken because of the precedence that the safety of passengers and crew takes at all airlines, even though there are currently no additional travel warnings from the relevant authorities," Lufthansa, which normally flies to Tel Aviv seven to 10 times weekly, said in a statement.
Al Jazeera and Reuters