* U.S., European services suspended due to rocket attack
* El Al takes up some of the slack
* Israel rejects comparisons with Ukrainian disaster
* Israel offers desert airport as alternative
By Steven Scheer
JERUSALEM, July 23 Israel tried on Wednesday to
get U.S. and European commercial flights to Tel Aviv restored
after some carriers suspended services, insisting its main
airport there was safe despite being targeted by Palestinian
Israeli authorities emphasised the success of the Iron Dome
interceptor system in protecting Ben Gurion Airport from rockets
fired by militants in the Gaza Strip, as well as a precautionary
narrowing of air corridors since fighting erupted on July 8.
However, Israel also said foreign airlines could use an
alternative airport deep in its southern desert.
About 30 U.S. airlines suspended flights to Ben Gurion in
accordance with a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) ban issued on
Tuesday, to be reviewed after 24 hours. The agency said it was
responding to a Palestinian rocket that struck a building 2 km
(1 mile) from the airport. Israel said the damage was from
debris of a rocket shot down by Iron Dome.
"Our airport is safe. Our airport is secure. And we hope the
American carriers will be flying to Israel soon," Mark Regev, a
spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an
interview on MSNBC.
However, most European airlines have followed suit, sharply
reducing traffic through Ben Gurion, a mid-sized airport that
normally bustles during the summer months.
Israeli officials described the FAA notice as too hasty and
affected by international jitters over the shooting down last
week of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.
Giora Romm, director-general of Israel's Civil Aviation
Authority, said he spoke with FAA counterparts and gave the
agency a host of information on the safety of the airport.
Romm dismissed comparisons between the relatively
unsophisticated rockets made by Gazan militants and the
Russian-built radar-guided missile which the West believes
brought down the Malaysia Airlines flight with the loss of 298
"I am a little upset by the hysteria from that rocket (from
Gaza)," he told Reuters. "One of the most unbelievable arguments
is that there is connection with rockets and the ground-to-air
missile that shot down the Malaysian aircraft in Ukraine."
Three civilians have died in Israel in the rocket attacks
out of Gaza, including a foreign labourer hit on Wednesday while
645 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed in Gaza
since Israel launched its offensive to halt the missile salvoes
by Hamas and its allies. Twenty-nine Israeli troops have also
Netanyahu on Tuesday asked U.S. Secretary of State John
Kerry, who is in the region trying to broker a Gaza truce, to
help restore U.S. commercial flights to Tel Aviv. But a U.S.
official said the Obama administration could not overrule an
aviation security precaution.
Israeli airlines continued flying and the Tourism Ministry
said on Wednesday that 22 foreign carriers were still landing at
Ben Gurion - among them British Airways, Iberia and Aeroflot.
Some 209 flights were to operate at Ben Gurion on Wednesday,
with 132,000 arrivals and departures, the ministry said.
Among the European airlines that have suspended flights are
Germany's Lufthansa and its subsidiaries including
Austrian Airlines and Swiss.
The Gaza war is set to wipe at least half a billion dollars
off the Israeli economy this year, industry bodies estimate.
EL AL PICKS UP SLACK
Flag carrier El Al has picked up some of the slack
and used a larger jet than normal on its morning flight from
Zurich to accommodate Swiss passengers. Swiss code shares with
El Al also is seeking approval to fly planes to Turkey to
bring home an estimated 4,000 Israelis stranded there.
U.S. carriers Delta and American unit US
Airways have said they do not plan on flying to Israel on
Wednesday while Polish airline Lot suspended flights until
Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called the FAA
decision "out of place" and a "reward to terrorism".
However, he said Ovda Airport, used mostly for military
aircraft and located near the southern resort of Eilat, was
ready as an alternative to Ben Gurion. Lying in the Negev desert
152 km (98 miles) from Gaza, Ovda is beyond the proven range of
Officials from European carriers said Ovda was too small and
remote from Tel Aviv and nearby Jerusalem.
State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the FAA was in
close touch with Israel and monitoring the situation before its
scheduled review of the ban within 24 hours. She also noted that
Kerry arrived in Israel on Wednesday on a military plane that
was not bound by the FAA order.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel on
Tuesday night on El Al in a show of solidarity.
"Ben Gurion is the best-protected airport in the world and
El Al flights have been regularly flying in and out of it
safely," he said on his webpage. "The flight restrictions are a
mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory and should be
Small cruise ships have also stopped calling at Israel's
Ashdod port at the request of port officials.
"Hamas will no doubt claim a major propaganda victory," said
Ben Vogel, editor of IHS Jane's Airport Review, noting Hamas had
failed to deliver on a July 9 threat to hit Ben Gurion.
"But the international aviation community appears to be in
no mood to take risks near conflict zones, especially in the
context of the surface-to-air missile shootdown of Malaysian
Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine on July 17."
(Additional reporting by Tova Cohen, Ari Rabinovitch and Arshad
Mohammed; editing by David Stamp)