Airlines and entertainers – including Air Canada and Cirque du Soleil – shunned Israel Wednesday as violence raged.
Air Canada cancelled its overnight flight to Tel Aviv for the second straight day. An August engagement by Cirque du Soleil was scrapped.
The Obama administration extended a mandatory ban on U.S. airlines from flying to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. Most international airlines cancelled their flights, with many flights already half-empty as the fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli forces that has killed hundreds and wounded thousands has wreaked havoc on tourist travel.
Israel fumed over the U.S. ban. After painting a dire picture of millions of Israelis living under constant threat of a murderous rain of missiles fired by Islamic militants from Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office found itself attempting to dismiss the flight ban as unnecessary because – it said – Ben Gurion was entirely safe and secure despite being well within range of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
Hamas claimed a victory. “The success of Hamas in closing Israeli airspace is a great victory for the resistance,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
Israel’s state-owned airline El Al kept flying, although it was forced to evacuate hundreds of passengers from one departing jet when sirens sounded signalling incoming missiles.
Most airlines, whether forbidden to fly as were U.S. carriers or simply opting not to take any risks, cancelled flights. The caution was heightened in the wake of last week’s shoot down of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine that killed all 298 people on board. Hamas militants aren’t known to have surface-to-air missiles. But more than 2,000 rockets, mostly small and ineffectual, have been fired at Israel in the past two weeks.
Meanwhile Israeli warplanes continued to pound targets Wednesday in the densely-populated Gaza Strip where nearly 700 Palestinians, including more than 100 children, have been killed by Israeli air strikes and army attacks. Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have died in Gaza in the six days since Mr. Netanyahu launched a ground offensive, and two Israeli civilians and a Thai labourer have been killed by Hamas missiles.
The Federal Aviation Administration first imposed the flight ban on U.S. carriers on Tuesday, saying it was a response “to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.” The agency said it would review the ban again Thursday.
Some airlines didn’t wait to be told and had already cancelled or diverted flights even before the initial FAA ban.
“We are not flying to Israel,” Delta Airlines chief executive officer Richard Anderson said in a CNBC interview, adding: “We will not allow a flight to be dispatched over Iran, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan or North Korea,” in effect lumping Israel in with some of the most war-torn or unstable states. “We make this decision wholly independent of any geopolitical or regulatory mandate.”
Israel insisted that Ben Gurion wasn’t dangerous and El Al continued to operate from the nation’s only major international airport. But only one runway was in use; the one that allows for approaches that skirt Gaza and are regarded as safest from incoming missiles.
“Our airport is safe. Our airport is secure,” insisted Mr. Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev. “We hope the American carriers will be flying to Israel.”
Earlier, Transport Minister Israel Katz had accused Washington of handing Hamas a propaganda victory. “There is no reason whatsoever that American companies would stop their flights and hand terror a prize,” said Mr. Katz.
Unlike European and U.S. aviation regulators that issued bans or advisories strongly recommending against flights, Transport Canada said nothing and didn’t respond to media inquires. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been Israel’s staunchest backer during the current outbreak of violence.
The planned August tour by Cirque du Soleil was cancelled because, according to the Israeli organizers, “it is impossible to secure the safety of the ensemble and the audience at this time.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama’s critics accused him of playing politics with flight safety.
“The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign policy demands,” said Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican and possible 2016 presidential contender. When Mr. Cruz’s allegations were dismissed by federal officials, he shot back. “We find the Obama Administration’s foreign policy to be ridiculous and offensive,” said his spokesman Catherine Frazier.
At least one U.S. aircraft defied the ban on flights to Ben Gurion. State Secretary John Kerry flew into Tel Aviv’s airport in his blue-and-white government Boeing 757 that was technically exempt from the FAA ban imposed only on U.S. commercial airlines. Mr. Kerry is attempting to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
In an effort to entice airlines into resuming flights, Israel also announced it would open the Ovda military air base deep in the Negev desert as an alternate to Ben Gurion, even though it cannot handle wide-body commercial airliners. No foreign airline has asked for landing rights. Ovda is about 250 kilometres south of Jerusalem.
Among the airlines that have cancelled flights are: Air Canada, Air France, Alitalia, Austrian, Brussels, Delta, Germanwings, KLM, Korean, LOT, Norwegian, Royal Jordanian, Scandinavian, Swiss, US Airways, and United.
The FAA ban drew a sharp attack from Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor and a staunch supporter of Israel.
“Ben Gurion is the best protected airport in the world and El Al flights have been regularly flying in and out of it safely,” he said. “The flight restrictions are a mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory,” said Mr. Bloomberg who then flew to Tel Aviv on one of El Al’s five daily fights from the United States.