JERUSALEM – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Israel’s main airport Tuesday, wounding one Israeli and prompting U.S. and some European airlines to suspend flights to Tel Aviv in a reflection of high anxiety over air travel after last week’s attack on 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 and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon met 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 and saying there is no reason to “hand terror a prize,” by halting the flights.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets toward Israel, and several heading toward the area of Ben-Gurion Airport have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, but police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Tuesday’s landing was the closet to the airport since fighting began on July 8.
The rocket damaged a house and lightly injured one Israeli in Yehud, a Tel Aviv suburb near the airport, Samri said. As a result, Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airlines decided to cancel their scheduled flights to Israel.
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.
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.
Germany and France’s largest airlines, Lufthansa and Air France, also suspended all flights to Tel Aviv over safety concerns amid the increasing violence.
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 defence system dependably zapped incoming Hamas rockets from the skies and the military successfully repelled infiltration attempts on the ground and from the sea.
Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes pummeled a wide range of locations in Gaza and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the two week war 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 per cent 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 defence official said Tuesday.
It was not immediately known if the missing soldier was alive or dead, the Israeli defence 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 in 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 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 in the past into drawn-out mediation 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 in the past to kidnap more Israelis 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 travelled 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 on 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 also were 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.
Laub reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report.