Rocket warnings send passengers to bomb shelters as U.S. flights to Israel resume

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 25, 2014 

— The first U.S. flights since the Obama administration briefly barred air travel to Israel arrived at the country’s main international airport Friday _ and were immediately greeted by rocket alerts that sent arriving passengers to bomb shelters.

Israelis insisted, however, that their country was safe _ and that the short-lived American ban on flights here had been unnecessary.

“We have the Iron Dome,” said a 22-year-old soldier who gave his name only as Lior, per army regulations, as he stood in a bombproof stairwell at Ben Gurion Airport. Next to him was his sister, who’d just arrived from Chicago. “We can’t let the threats prevent us from doing regular things,” he said.

His sister, busy chatting with the several relatives who greeted her, didn’t address the topic. If she was bothered to be having to seek shelter only minutes after arriving, it didn’t show.

Indeed, there was a decided atmosphere of unconcern among the people who crowded Ben Gurion when the siren sounded. If anything, the Americans among them seemed to draw purpose from the event.

“These are our brothers and sisters and we want to be there for them,” said New York podiatrist Paul Belitz, 43, who’d arrived on a solidarity trip organized just days ago by the Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization for observant Jews in the United States. He said he would be traveling to the border town of Sderot, where Hamas rockets have fallen for more than a decade.

He suspected the Federal Aviation Administration had imposed the ban, which lasted for about 48 hours, for political purposes. “There are also missiles and bombs in other areas,” he said.

For Israelis who were returning home, the ban had come as a blow. Limor Cohen-Melul, who teaches Hebrew in Boston, had hoped to be home earlier in the week, even though her American friends had urged her to stay out of Israel this summer. But she wanted to be with her family in Israel through the military operation.

She, her husband and their children were sitting on the plane in Boston on Tuesday when the pilot announced that there would be no flight to Tel Aviv, as the FAA ban went into effect.

“We were in shock,” she said. Now that she was home, she was glad to be there. “My friends tell me I’m crazy,” but, she added, “I’m feeling more secure here than anywhere else.”

Hamas claimed it fired three rockets at the airport on Friday. The Israeli military said it had intercepted two rockets above Tel Aviv. The rockets delayed an Air Canada flight from landing, with air traffic controllers putting the plane in a holding pattern until the rocket fire abated _ like a bad rainstorm.

The FAA imposed the ban on air travel Tuesday for 24 hours, then renewed it on Wednesday before lifting it later that night. Europe also issued a ban that grounded Israel-bound flights by Lufthansa, Air France and Alitalia among others. By Wednesday, nearly half of 400 flights to and from Tel Aviv had been canceled, according to Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Ofer Lefler.

The ban outraged Israeli officials, who in spite of their proclamations about the dangers the rockets represent said the country remained safe. “This decision only rewards the Hamas terrorists,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a position echoed oddly enough by Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. “Stopping air traffic and isolating Israel from the world is a great victory for the resistance,” Barhoum said.

With the ban lifted, many saw politics behind the FAA’s action.

“Even in the Gulf War the planes were still flying. I remember, I was a young soldier. Everything kept going,” said Sagi Rochel, 44, an Israeli who mourned a family vacation he’d planned in Germany’s Black Forest. His Air Serbia flight was canceled, and he assumed he would not be reimbursed for any of the expenses he’d laid out.

Joella Kudron, 24, an American about to catch a flight home via Italy to Westfield, N.J., after a year studying counterterrorism in Israel, agreed. “It was a little strange that they were banning flights to Israel and not to Ukraine,” where a Malaysia Airlines flight had been downed by a surface-to-air missile last week, she said.

But the few days without arriving air flights gave Israelis a sense of what isolation would feel like. Some European airlines still had not resumed flights on Friday _ something Cohen-Melul said she noted as soon as her flight touched down.

“I looked around, and I saw the only airlines were El Al” _ the Israeli national carrier _ “and American airlines. And it was so hard. I don’t think its fair for the world to treat us this way,” she said.

Indeed, many Israelis faced huge hurdles getting home. About 2,000 Israelis found themselves stuck in Istanbul amid hostile protests when Turkish Airlines didn’t reinstate service. The Israelis flew to Athens, and Israeli carriers El Al and Arkia Airlines ferried passengers home from Greece.

By Friday night, most airlines had restored their flights, but the sense of normality may not follow soon. Before the outbreak of violence in Gaza, the Israeli tourism ministry had expected 2014 to set a new record, surpassing last year’s historic high of 3.5 million visitors. Now, those projections are just dreams.

Benny Ziffer, the literary editor at the Haaretz daily newspaper, said that for a moment the ban shook Israeli confidence in their connection to the Western world _ in spite of family roots that allow many to claim second passports from European countries.

“It’s like someone closed the door in front of them saying, ‘You think you are part of Europe, but you are not,’” Ziffer said. “I think they really touched the weak point of the Israeli psyche.”

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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