JERUSALEM — American and European air carriers suspended flights to Israel on Tuesday after a rocket landed near the country’s international airport as fighting between Israeli forces and Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip entered its third week.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it had ordered U.S. airlines to suspend flights from the United States to Israel “for a period of up to 24 hours,” citing safety concerns. The European Aviation Safety Agency said it would issue a bulletin with a “strong recommendation” that airlines avoid Israel.
The imposition of a flight ban at the height of the tourist season brought an unprecedented economic dimension to Israel’s Gaza military campaign. The United States hadn’t imposed a similar ban during other recent fighting over Gaza, and its imposition was immediately protested by Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who brought it up in a phone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the State Department.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the U.S. was not trying to pressure Israel through the prohibition. “The FAA’s notice was issued to protect American citizens and American carriers,” she said. “The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens.
As Israeli forces intensified air and artillery strikes in support of ground troops in the Gaza Strip, the death toll among Palestinians passed 630, 75 percent of them civilians, including 146 children, according to the United Nations. The Israeli army says it has killed at least 160 militants in ground combat.
Two Israeli civilians and 27 soldiers have died in the conflict, according to the army.
There was little reason to expect the violence to subside soon. Kerry held talks in Cairo in an effort to bring an end to the fighting, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, but there were no signs of a breakthrough toward arranging a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, the army said that a soldier presumed dead was missing in action, two days after the militant Islamist group Hamas claimed it had captured him in combat, giving his name and military identification number.
An army spokesman said the soldier, Sgt. Oron Shaul, 21, was “unaccounted for” after an incident Sunday in which an armored personnel carrier hit by an anti-tank rocket exploded and burned. Remains of six of the seven soldiers thought to have been in the vehicle have been identified.
The airline cancellations came after a rocket crashed into a house in Yehud, a town about a mile from Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv.
Shortly after the flight suspensions were announced, militants in Gaza fired a volley of rockets toward the airport area, triggering warning sirens there and in neighboring towns. Residents took shelter as some rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. No casualties or damage were reported.
An FAA “Notice to Airmen” said that “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben-Gurion International Airport by U.S. operators are forbidden until further advised.”
The ban comes on the heels of last week’s downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. Airlines have since rerouted planes to avoid the area over eastern Ukraine where pro-Soviet separatists are battling the Ukrainian army.
U.S. authorities were discussing restrictions on U.S. flights to Israel even before the Malaysia Airlines catastrophe, an Obama administration official told McClatchy. FAA officials said that similar notices had been issued because of conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
United Airlines, U.S. Airways and Delta Air lines said they were suspending service to Israel until further notice.
“The safety of our passengers and crew members is of course our top priority,” said Matt Miller, a spokesman for the American Airlines Group,which includes US Airways.
US Airways canceled its daily flight between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv. United Airlines canceled its two daily flights to Israel from Newark, N.J. A statement from the airline said: “We are suspending Tel Aviv operations until further notice. We are working with government officials to ensure the safety of our customers and our employees and continue to evaluate the situation.”
Delta Airlines’ only daily flight to Israel was in the air when the FAA notice was issued. The flight had departed New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and was approaching Israel when the rocket landed near the airport. The flight was diverted to Paris.
Germany’s flagship air carrier Lufthansa, which includes Swiss Internatinal Air Lines, Germanwings and Austrian Airlines, said it had decided to suspend flights to Israel for two days. Air France and the Dutch airline KLM also said they had suspended flights, as well as Air Canada.
Israel’s Transportation Ministry urged the airlines to reverse their decision, saying Israel’s main airport was “safe for landings and departures.”
“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,” the ministry said in a statement. Israel’s national carrier El Al is continuing its flights on schedule.
Yossi Fatael, managing director of the Israeli travel agents association, told Israel Radio that the flight suspensions were a “terrible blow” that would cause “tremendous” harm at the height of the tourist season.
As the economic impact of the fighting in Gaza began to sink in, Israelis faced a grim reminder of the human cost of the war when the army acknowledged that it was unsure of the fate of Sgt. Shaul, missing since Sunday’s fierce fighting with Hamas in the eastern neighborhoods of Gaza City.
A spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas announced late Sunday that it was holding the soldier, setting off street celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank. But aside from providing the soldiers’ name and identification number, the militant group has not produced evidence that it is holding him alive, leading to speculation in Israel that it had seized his remains.
Sgt. Shaul is believed to have been “in the area” of an armored personnel carrier that exploded and burned after it was hit by an anti-tank missile, Brig. Gen. Mott Almoz, the chief army spokesman, told Channel Two television on Monday night.
“We don’t know if he survived the explosion or did not survive,” Almoz said, adding that the vehicle, thought to be have carried Shaul and six other soldiers, burned “for a few hours.”
“We assume that the blast was on a very big order of magnitude,” Almoz said, adding that “we didn’t see anything associated with dragging or kidnapping.”
Almoz said that the bodies of six other soldiers in the armored personnel carrier had been recovered and identified, and that work was continuing to identify remains of Sgt. Shaul.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official, told an Iranian television station on Monday that Israel would have “to pay” for any more information on the missing soldier, saying that along with a cease-fire agreement, Israel would have to negotiate his release.
Hamas seized another Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid and held him captive for more than five years in the Gaza Strip before he was exchanged in 2011 for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, complained that on Sunday an Israeli shell hit one of its schools in the Gaza Strip where 300 people who had fled the fighting were sheltering, injuring a child. On Monday, when UNRWA officials returned to the site to investigate the incident, there was further shelling, “seriously endangering the lives of U.N. humanitarian workers and displaced civilians,” the agency said in a statement.
Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, called the shelling “a serious violation of United Nations premises” and called for an immediate investigation. The agency says that more than 118,000 Palestinians displaced by the fighting have sought refuge in its schools across the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army said it was checking the report.
In another development, the U.N. agency said that for the second time it had found rockets stored in one of its vacant schools, near two other school buildings housing 3,000 displaced people. The agency condemned what it called a “flagrant violation of the inviolability of its premises under international law.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com