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Airlines ban flights to Israel after rocket strike

Published: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 10:19 p.m. CST

JERUSALEM – A Hamas rocket exploded Tuesday near Israel's main airport, prompting a ban on flights from the U.S. and many from Europe and Canada as aviation authorities responded to the shock of seeing a civilian jetliner shot down over Ukraine.

Israel declared that Ben-Gurion Airport was safe and said there was no reason to "hand terror a prize" by halting flights.

The rare flight ban came as Israel grappled with news that a soldier went missing after an attack in the Gaza Strip, raising the possibility he was abducted, a scenario that could complicate intense diplomatic efforts to end the two-week conflict.

Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets toward Israel since fighting began on July 8, but most — including several heading toward Tel Aviv — fell harmlessly into open areas or were shot out of the sky by the "Iron Dome" defense system, keeping Israeli casualties low.

Tuesday's rocket attack was the closest to the airport so far, said police spokeswoman Luba Samri, and largely destroyed a house, slightly injuring one Israeli in the nearby Tel Aviv suburb of Yehud.

Aviation authorities reacted swiftly. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration prohibited American airlines from flying to Tel Aviv for 24 hours "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, Alitalia, Dutch KLM, Britain's easyJet, Turkish Airlines and Greece's Aegean Airlines were among those carriers canceling flights to Tel Aviv over safety concerns amid the increasing violence.

Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called on the U.S. aviation authority to reconsider, calling the flight ban "unnecessary" and saying Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system provided cover for civil aviation.

"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," his office said in a statement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the issue of the ban with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in the Middle East on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

"The FAA's notice was issued to protect American citizens and American carriers. The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens," Psaki said in a statement. "

International airlines and passengers have grown 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 battling to control its international airport destroyed an Airbus A330 on the ground over the weekend.

The Tel Aviv airport is Israel's main gateway to the world and Hamas militants have said they hoped to target it to disrupt life in Israel.

Another Hamas objective was to abduct an Israeli soldier, and Israeli fears over such an occurrence were revisited Tuesday when the military announced that a soldier was missing following a deadly battle in Gaza, where the Israelis are fighting Hamas militants in the third such war in just over five years.

The military said 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's.

Hamas claims to have abducted him and has flaunted his name and military ID number to try to back that claim. Military officials say the soldier is almost certainly dead, but it would be a nightmare scenario for the Jewish state if even his remains were in the hands of Hamas.

Past abductions of Israeli soldiers have turned into painful drawn-out affairs and Israel has paid a heavy price in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remains held by its enemies. The prolonged saga of Gilad Schalit, a soldier captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006 and held for more than five years before he was swapped for more than 1,000 Palestinians prisoners, still weighs heavily in Israel.

"We understand the terror organization is looking for some leverage and as cynical as it sounds, one type of leverage is bargaining over parts of bodies," said Lior Lotan, a reserve Israeli colonel and former head of its POW and MIA department.

Israeli airstrikes continued to pummel Gaza tunnels, rocket launchers and militants on the 15th day of the war Tuesday as diplomatic efforts intensified to end fighting that has killed at least 630 Palestinians and 29 Israelis — 27 soldiers and two civilians.

Israel says its troops have killed hundreds of Hamas gunmen, while Gaza officials say the vast majority have been civilians, many of them children.

Israel says it is trying hard to avoid civilian casualties and blames Hamas for using civilians as "human shields."

Human rights activists say past confrontations have shown that when Israeli carries out attacks in densely populated Palestinian areas, civilian deaths are inevitable.

The Israeli military said that after a firefight with Palestinian militants on Tuesday, troops saw some Palestinian gunmen flee the scene in an ambulance.

The military said soldiers "did not target the ambulance in light of the possibility uninvolved civilians were in it."

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. But Hamas has rejected repeated Egyptian truce proposals.

Both U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and Kerry were in the region to make the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict.

Kerry met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and other senior officials in Cairo. He stopped short of advocating a new round of peace talks but left the door open for broad negotiations between Israel and Palestinian officials once a cease-fire is in place.

"Just reaching a cease-fire is clearly not enough," Kerry said. "It is imperative that there be a serious engagement, discussion, negotiation, regarding the underlying issues and addressing all the concerns that have brought us to where we are today."

El-Sissi said he raised with Ban the possibility of an international donor conference for Gaza reconstruction after a cease-fire is implemented.

The U.N. secretary-general, meanwhile, said it was his "hope and belief" that his mission would lead to an end to the fighting "in the very near future." Ban told the Security Council by videoconference from the West Bank city of Ramallah that he could not publicly reveal details "at this highly sensitive moment." As he spoke a siren could be heard in the background.

Ban earlier met with Netanyahu in Israel, where he urged a resumption of talks toward bringing about a two-state solution.

Netanyahu responded that Hamas, a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, does not want a two-state solution and said the international community needed 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," Netanyahu said at a joint press conference in Tel Aviv. "What grievance can we solve with Hamas? Their grievance is that we exist. They don't want a two-state solution, they don't want any state solution."

Hamas, with backing from its allies Qatar and Turkey, says it wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting its fire.

Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel, and expanded it to a ground war last week aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis.

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.

___

Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Maggie Michael in Cairo, Tia Goldenberg, Ian Deitch and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

___

Follow Heller on Twitter @aronhellerap.

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