The Obama administration lifted a ban on U.S. flights to Israel Thursday but some international airlines were expected to refuse to resume flying to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport until the raging conflict subsides.
On Thursday, Israeli warplanes continued to pound targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where more than 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a ground offensive, and two Israeli civilians and a Thai labourer have been killed by Hamas missiles.
Air Canada, which cancelled its Toronto-to-Tel Aviv flight for two days in a row, has announced it is resuming flights to Ben Gurion this evening. For Thursday's flight it will replace the usual 211-seat Boeing 767 with a larger 349-seat Boeing 777 to clear the backlog of delayed passengers, the airline said.
"The safety of our passengers and crew is our first priority and we will continue to monitor developments very closely," said Isabelle Arthur, the airline's spokeswoman.
United Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to resume flights to Israel Thursday, with flights from Newark to Tel Aviv at 4:45 p.m. (ET) and 10:50 p.m.
Hamas had claimed the ban on flights was a victory while President Barack Obama's critics accused him of trying to pressure Israel.
"The success of Hamas in closing Israeli airspace is a great victory for the resistance," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement before the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced it was lifting the flight ban.
"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.
The FAA insisted there had been no political meddling. "The agency's responsibility is to act with an abundance of caution in protecting those traveling on U.S. airlines," it said.
Mr. Netanyahu had lambasted the U.S. ban, claiming it "rewards the Hamas terrorists for nothing."
The European Aviation Safety Agency, which had issued a strong recommendation that airlines shun Ben Gurion, announced it would "lift the recommendation to avoid flying to the Tel Aviv airport," said spokeswoman Dominique Fouda.
In lifting its ban, the FAA said it "worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation." No details of new measures to safeguard flights were provided.
The original FAA mandatory ban announced earlier this week triggered a wave of flight cancellations.
Among the airlines that cancelled flights: Aeroflot, Air Canada, Air France, Alitalia, Austrian, Brussels, Delta, Germanwings, KLM, Korean, LOT, Norwegian, Royal Jordanian, Scandinavian, Swiss, U.S. Airways and United.
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, Mr. 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.
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.
The flight ban on U.S. carriers was first imposed Tuesday by the FAA, which said it was a response "to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza" after at least one Hamas missile landed close to the airport.
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.
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.
As airlines reassessed the risks, other cancellations continued. A planned August tour by Canada's 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."
With a report from Associated Press