JERUSALEM (AP) — A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Israel’s main airport Tuesday, wounding one Israeli and prompting all U.S. and some European and Canadian airlines to cancel flights to Tel Aviv — a reflection of high anxiety over air travel after the downing of a Malaysian jet over Ukraine.
It was the latest blow to Israel on a day when it announced that an Israeli soldier went missing following a deadly battle in the Palestinian territory, where the Israelis are fighting Hamas militants in the third conflict in just over five years. With the casualty toll mounting on both sides, the international community has stepped up diplomatic efforts with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon meeting with Egyptian and Israeli officials in a bid to revive a cease-fire proposal that was rejected by Hamas.
Israel’s Transportation Ministry called on the companies to reverse their decision, insisting the Ben-Gurion Airport is safe and completely guarded, saying there is no reason to “hand terror a prize” by halting the flights.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets to Israel, and several heading toward the area of Ben-Gurion Airport have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, but police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Tuesday’s landing was the closet to the airport since fighting began on July 8.
The rocket heavily damaged a house and lightly injured one Israeli in Yehud, a Tel Aviv suburb near the airport, Samri said.
However, international airlines and passengers are growing more anxious about safety since last week, when a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. While Hamas rockets aren’t guided missiles, they still can cause massive damage to an aircraft. For instance, unguided mortar fire in Tripoli from a militia batting to control its international airport destroyed a $113 million Airbus A330 over the weekend, used by Libya’s state-owned Afriqiyah Airways.
The Federal Aviation Administration told U.S. airlines they are prohibited from flying to the Tel Aviv airport in Israel for 24 hours starting Tuesday afternoon “due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza.” Later, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an advisory to airlines saying it “strongly recommends” airlines avoid the airport.
Germany’s Lufthansa, Air France, Air Canada and Alitalia canceled flights to Tel Aviv over safety concerns amid the increasing violence. Dutch airline KLM also canceled Flight 461 from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv because of the unclear situation at and around the airport. Greece’s Aegean Airlines also canceled flights from Athens and Iraklio to Tel Aviv on Tuesday and Wednesday, citing “operational reasons.”
The disruption to air travel came as Israel is increasingly suffering from the effects of the war in Gaza after nearly two weeks of largely remaining insulated, as the air defense system dependably zapped incoming Hamas rockets from the skies and the military successfully repelled infiltration attempts on the ground and from the sea. That has changed since Israel launched a ground operation on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes continued to pummel a wide range of locations in Gaza and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the fighting that has killed at least 609 Palestinians and 29 Israelis — 27 soldiers and two civilians. The U.N. office of humanitarian affairs estimates that at least 75 percent of the Palestinian deaths were civilians, including dozens of children.
The fate of another Israeli soldier who went missing following a deadly battle in the Gaza Strip remained unknown, a defense official said Tuesday.
It was not immediately known if the missing soldier was alive or dead, the Israeli defense official told The Associated Press. The disappearance raised the possibility that he had been captured by Hamas — a nightmare scenario for Israel. In the past, Israel has paid a heavy price in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remains held by its enemies.
Military officials said the soldier, identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, was among seven soldiers in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile during a battle in Gaza over the weekend. The other six have been confirmed as dead, but no remains have been identified as Shaul, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident with media.
Hamas’ claimed earlier this week that it had captured an Israeli soldier. Israel’s U.N. ambassador initially denied the claim but the military neither confirmed nor denied it.
A representative of Shaul’s family, Racheli Gazit, said that “so as long as the verification has not been completed … as far as the family is concerned Oron is not a fallen soldier.”
Abductions of Israeli soldiers have turned into drawn-out mediation in the past, with opponents leading to prisoner releases. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese militants in exchange for the remains of two soldiers killed in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Also in 2006, Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for his return in 2011.
Hamas had threatened to kidnap more Israelis in the past and Israel says the militant group’s attacks through tunnels that stretch into Israel are for this purpose.
Egypt, Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
In Cairo, Ban and Kerry met Egyptian officials Tuesday in the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict. Ban then traveled to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community to hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.
“What we’re seeing here with Hamas is another instance of Islamist extremism, violent extremism that has no resolvable grievance,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Ban in Tel Aviv. He compared Hamas with al-Qaida and extremist Islamic militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa.
“Hamas is like ISIS, Hamas is like al-Qaida, Hamas is like Hezbollah, Hamas is like Boko Haram,” he said.
Netanyahu was responding to a call by Ban that the sides address the root causes of the fighting and work toward bringing about a two-state solution.
“My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year,” Ban said. Netanyahu responded that Hamas, a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, does not want a two-state solution.
Hamas, with some support from Qatar and Turkey, wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting fire. The Islamic militant group has no faith in mediation by Egypt’s rulers, who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago and tightened restrictions on Gaza — to the point of driving Hamas into its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.
The border blockade has set Gaza back years, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs through bans on most exports and imports of vital construction materials Israel says could be diverted by Hamas for military use. Israel allows many consumer goods into Gaza, but experts say Gaza’s economy cannot recover without a resumption of exports.
Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel. It expanded it on July 17 to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. The military says Hamas has launched 2,000 rockets since the war began.
Overnight, the Israeli military said it bombed more than 180 militant targets in Gaza, including concealed rocket launchers, a weapon manufacturing facility and surface-to-surface missile launchers. Gaza police spokesman Ayman Batniji said mosques, a sports complex and the home of a former Hamas military chief were also hit.
Since the war began, Israel has struck almost 3,000 sites in Gaza, killed more than 180 armed Palestinians and uncovered 66 access shafts of 23 tunnels, the military said.
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