Israel scrambles to restore foreign flights to Tel Aviv

Photo: Israel scrambles to restore foreign flights to Tel Aviv / Arab-Israel Relations

Israel tried on Wednesday to get U.S. and European commercial flights to Tel Aviv restored after some carriers suspended services, insisting its main airport there was safe despite being targeted by Palestinian rockets, Reuters reported.

Israeli authorities emphasized the success of the Iron Dome interceptor system in protecting Ben Gurion Airport from rockets fired by militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as a precautionary narrowing of air corridors since fighting erupted on July 8.

However, Israel also said foreign airlines could use an alternative airport deep in its southern desert.

About 30 U.S. airlines suspended flights to Ben Gurion in accordance with a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) ban issued on Tuesday, to be reviewed after 24 hours. The agency said it was responding to a Palestinian rocket that struck a building 2 km (1 mile) from the airport. Israel said the damage was from debris of a rocket shot down by Iron Dome.

"Our airport is safe. Our airport is secure. And we hope the American carriers will be flying to Israel soon," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an interview on MSNBC.

However, most European airlines have followed suit, sharply reducing traffic through Ben Gurion, a mid-sized airport that normally bustles during the summer months.

Israeli officials described the FAA notice as too hasty and affected by international jitters over the shooting down last week of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.

Giora Romm, director-general of Israel's Civil Aviation Authority, said he spoke with FAA counterparts and gave the agency a host of information on the safety of the airport.

Romm dismissed comparisons between the relatively unsophisticated rockets made by Gazan militants and the Russian-built radar-guided missile which the West believes brought down the Malaysia Airlines flight with the loss of 298 lives.

"I am a little upset by the hysteria from that rocket (from Gaza)," he told Reuters. "One of the most unbelievable arguments is that there is connection with rockets and the ground-to-air missile that shot down the Malaysian aircraft in Ukraine."

Three civilians have died in Israel in the rocket attacks out of Gaza, including a foreign laborer hit on Wednesday while 645 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its offensive to halt the missile salvoes by Hamas and its allies. Twenty-nine Israeli troops have also been killed.

Netanyahu on Tuesday asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in the region trying to broker a Gaza truce, to help restore U.S. commercial flights to Tel Aviv. But a U.S. official said the Obama administration could not overrule an aviation security precaution.

Israeli airlines continued flying and the Tourism Ministry said on Wednesday that 22 foreign carriers were still landing at Ben Gurion - among them British Airways, Iberia and Aeroflot. Some 209 flights were to operate at Ben Gurion on Wednesday, with 132,000 arrivals and departures, the ministry said.

Among the European airlines that have suspended flights are Germany's Lufthansa and its subsidiaries including Austrian Airlines and Swiss.

The Gaza war is set to wipe at least half a billion dollars off the Israeli economy this year, industry bodies estimate.

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