07/22/2014 (9:00 pm)
JERUSALEM—A Hamas rocket exploded Tuesday near Israel’s main airport, prompting a ban on many international flights, including Air Canada’s, amid worries stoked by the recent downing of a Malaysia Airlines airliner over Ukraine.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets toward Israel since fighting began on July 8, but most have fallen harmlessly into open areas or were shot out of the sky by the “Iron Dome” defence system.
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Nonetheless, international 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 saying it “strongly recommends” airlines avoid the airport. Lufthansa, Air France, Alitalia, KLM, easyJet, Turkish Airlines and Aegean Airlines were among those that acted.
Air Canada also quickly followed suit, cancelling Flight 84, its daily route from Toronto to Tel Aviv.
Israel, however, insisted that Ben-Gurion Airport, on the southeastern outskirts of Tel Aviv, was safe and there was no reason to “hand terror a prize” by halting flights.
The rare flight ban came as Israelis grappled with news that one of their soldiers went missing during an attack in the Gaza Strip on the weekend, raising the possibility he was abducted — a scenario that could complicate intense diplomatic efforts to end the two-week conflict.
Tuesday’s rocket attack was the closest to the airport so far, said a police spokeswoman, and largely destroyed a house, slightly injuring one Israeli in a nearby suburb.
Celebrations ring out across Gaza after Hamas claims to have captured an Israeli soldier. (July 20, 2014)
“We will continue to evaluate the situation and provide updates as needed,” Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur told the Star’s Vanessa Lu in an email.
Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called on the U.S. aviation authority to reconsider, saying Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence 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.
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 could cause massive damage to an aircraft if they got close. 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.
Israel’s military offensive in Gaza goes into its third week as the U.S steps up efforts to help bring about a ceasefire. Paul Chapman reports
Another Hamas objective was to abduct an Israeli soldier, and Israeli fears over such an occurrence were revived Tuesday when the military announced a soldier was missing in fighting with Hamas militants in Gaza cash advance loans.
The military said Sgt. Oron Shaul was among seven soldiers in a vehicle hit by an anti-tank missile on 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 that claim.
Israeli military officials say Shaul 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 Palestinians 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.
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Tsafrir Abayov / AP
Israeli airstrikes pummeled targets in the Gaza Strip Tuesday as the UN chief and the U.S. secretary of state began an intensive effort to end fighting.
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. Israel says it is trying hard to avoid civilian casualties and blames Hamas for using civilians as “human shields.”
The Israeli military said that after a firefight with Palestinian militants on Tuesday, troops saw some Palestinian gunmen flee the scene in an ambulance.
The military said soldiers “did not target the ambulance in light of the possibility uninvolved civilians were in it.”
Egypt, Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional ceasefire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007. But Hamas has rejected repeated Egyptian truce proposals.
Both UN chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were in the region to make the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict.
Kerry met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and other senior officials in Cairo. He stopped short of advocating a new round of peace talks but left the door open for broad negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials once a ceasefire is in place.
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