International flights to and from Israel suspended over security concerns

Move likely to alarm Israeli government as Ban Ki-moon says end to fighting in Gaza could be ‘very near’ II

Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, Patrick Kingsley in Cairo and agencies

theguardian.com, Wednesday 23 July 2014 

International airlines halted flights to and from Israel indefinitely on Tuesday citing security concerns in an unexpected twist to the two-week-old conflict in Gaza. II
The move came as political leaders and diplomats held urgent talks in the region with UN chief Ban Ki-moon saying his “hope and belief” was that an end to fighting could be “very near”. II
On Wednesday morning the Palestinian decision-making body led by President Mahmoud Abbas said it was backing Hamas’s demands that an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza and other concessions must form part of any deal to end the hostilities. II
Delta was the first carrier to halt flights to and from Israel after diverting a flight carrying 273 passengers bound for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Paris on Tuesday after “reports of a rocket or associated debris near the airport in Tel Aviv”. It was followed by America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (FAA) – which has halted all US flights to and from Israel – Air France and Dutch airline KLM. II
While easyJet also suspended flights, British Airways said it would carry on with its twice-daily service from London. II
On Tuesday night Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, asked the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to help restore commercial flights. But a White House official, when asked, said: “We’re not going to overrule the FAA. Period.” II
Delta Airlines said it had suspended service until further notice to and from Ben Gurion international airport in Tel Aviv and the airline’s New York-JFK hub. It added: “Delta, in co-ordination with the US Federal Aviation Administration, is doing so to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees.” II
A spokesperson for Air France announced that the airline had suspended all flights owing to the “evolution of the security situation in Israel”. “The decision … will come into effect immediately and remain until further notice,” he added. II
The surprise decision is likely to alarm the Israeli government and business community, which have so far seen relatively few economic repercussions from the conflict. It will doubtless deliver a substantial blow to the tourism industry, the one sector that has already suffered during the conflict. II
High-level diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis continued in the region, with Ban suggesting in a video link to the UN security council in New York from Ramallah that a breakthrough could be imminent, although he could not disclose details “at this highly sensitive moment”. II
“Suffice it to say, it is my hope and belief that these talks will lead to results and an end to the fighting in the very near future,” he said, while acknowledging “many obstacles and complexities”. II
On Wednesday morning the Palestinian Liberation Organisation endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza hostilities. “The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve,” senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah. II
Signalling that Abbas, too, sought a staggered cessation of hostilities, the Palestinian leader’s Fatah faction on Tuesday proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms. There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from Hamas or Israel
Earlier in Tel Aviv, Ban had delivered a blunt message to Netanyahu, saying the bloodshed in Gaza must end. As the Israeli military continued its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the secretary general urged Israel to exercise “maximum restraint”. Ban said he understood the state’s security concerns, “but your military response is causing many civilian casualties. I hope we will be able to see the end of this violence as soon as possible.” II
Representing Israeli frustration at external criticism of its operation in Gaza, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, controversially suggested Israel should be awarded the Nobel peace prize for “fighting with unimaginable restraint”. He told a meeting of Christians United For Israel in Washington: “Some are shamelessly accusing Israel of genocide and would put us in the dock for war crimes. But the truth is that the Israel Defence Forces should be given… a Nobel Peace Prize for fighting with unimaginable restraint.” II
On the 15th day of fighting, the death toll in Gaza topped 600 with more than 3,700 injured. II
On Monday, the UN said one of its schools being used to shelter thousands of refugees from the fighting had been hit by shelling. The humanitarian agency also announced that more than 100,000 people had sought shelter in its schools, and 43% of the Gaza Strip had become a virtual no-go zone following Israeli warnings for residents to leave ahead of bombardment. II
An air strike on a house near Khan Younis killed 25 members of one family, including 18 children and five women, three of whom were pregnant, as they broke the Ramadan fast on Sunday evening. A Hamas member was also killed. II
Israel confirmed that one of its soldiers was missing in Gaza, and that 27 others had been killed. Two Israeli civilians have also died since the conflict began two weeks ago. The missing soldier named by the Israel Defence Forces as Oron Shaul, 20, was probably killed in or following an attack on an armoured personnel carrier during a a bloody battle in Shujai’iya, Gaza City, on Sunday, which killed six others in the vehicle, according to military sources. II
Hamas said on Sunday evening it had captured an Israeli soldier, whom it named as Oron Shaul, displaying his ID card and military serial number on video. But it failed to produce evidence that the soldier was alive, leading to speculation that Hamas was holding the soldier’s body to use as a bargaining chip with Israel. II
Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner told reporters “extensive forensic examination” of the scene of the attack was being undertaken in order to determine the soldier’s fate. The armoured vehicle was struck by possibly multiple missiles, he said. II
“The result was dramatic, devastation at the site was huge.” On whether the soldier could still be alive, he added: “Ultimately we don’t have a clear answer… To be honest we just don’t know.” II
A high-rise apartment block partly collapsed on Tuesday, killing six Palestinians with German citizenship. The body of a woman hung from the wreckage for several hours before it could be retrieved. II
Seven people, including four women from one family, were killed in a separate airstrike, according to Gaza paramedics. II
The IDF also said it had located 66 shafts leading to 25 tunnels, six of which had been detonated. Col Uri Gordon, commander of the Nahal brigade, told reporters: “We have located the majority of the tunnels, but have not completed the mapping and destruction.” II
Israel’s military and political leadership has said the principal goal of the ground operation was to find and destroy tunnels build by Hamas and other militants. II
Ban, who travelled to Ramallah and Tel Aviv after meetings to discuss ceasefire proposals in Cairo, said at a press conference: “My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so that we are not at the same situation in the next six months or a year.” II
He condemned rocket fire from Gaza, which he described as “shocking”, but said Israel must exercise “maximum restraint”. He added: “We must address the underlying issues including mutual recognition, occupation, despair and denial of dignity so people will not feel they have to resort to violence as a means of expressing their grievances.” II
Earlier, Ban met the US secretary of state, John Kerry, in Cairo, who arrived in the region to add his weight to efforts to reach a ceasefire deal. Kerry also met the Egyptian president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, and the foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry. II
Reiterating his support for an immediate ceasefire, Kerry said: “Hamas has a fundamental choice to make and it is a choice that will have a fundamental impact on the people of Gaza.” II
He added: “But just reaching a ceasefire is clearly not enough. It is imperative that there be a serious discussion, negotiation addressing the underlying issues that have brought us to where we are today.” II
He added: “Once a ceasefire has been reached, we are certainly ready to talk through the incredibly complicated underlying issues to this crisis … The Egyptians have provided a framework and forum for them to be able to come to the table to have a series of discussions.” II
Kerry said Israel has responded to Hamas rocket fire “as any country has the right to do when it’s under attack, and we support Israel’s right to self defence.” II
He nevertheless expressed sympathy for victims on “all sides” of the conflict. “We’ve seen too much bloodshed on all sides, including the death of two American citizens, and we have watched the humanitarian crisis grow worse day after day. People have lost their homes, possessions, access to water and food, their entire way of life.” II
Hamas has rejected Egypt’s week-old proposal for a ceasefire because the group wants guarantees on the easing to the blockade on Gaza, and the release of prisoners. II
But Egypt and Israel say such issues can only be discussed after a ceasefire is reached – a stance Kerry strongly endorsed. II


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