* 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 (Reuters) - 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 rockets.
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 lives.
“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 been killed.
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.
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.
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 Monday.
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 Palestinian rockets.
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 lifted immediately.”
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)