With a single rocket, Hamas rattles its enemy

The suspension of nearly all foreign flights to Israel came after a rocket landed near Ben Gurion Airport, possibly giving Hamas leverage in any negotiated end to the conflict.

Dan Balilty/AP
Israelis wait to board at Ben Gurion International airport a day after the US Federal Aviation Administration imposed a 24-hour restriction on flights after a Hamas rocket landed within a mile of the airport, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, July 23, 2014.

After firing more than 2,000 rockets at Israel, Hamas hit the money yesterday. With a single strike, it managed to stop virtually all foreign airlines from coming into Israel, depriving the country both of an economic lifeline and its reputation as being able to carry on no matter what its enemies do.

The spate of suspensions on Ben Gurion Airport appear unlikely to force Israel to the negotiating table; if anything, it may strengthen its resolve to quash Hamas’s military capabilities. But it has given Hamas more leverage in any eventual cease-fire negotiations.

“Hamas will insist on lifting the siege, and more than that,” says Akram Atallah, a columnist for Al-Ayyam newspaper in Gaza.

Palestinians in Gaza saw it as a victory in the conflict with Israel, which has killed more than 650 Palestinians and 29 Israeli soldiers and three residents of Israel after more than two weeks of intense conflict. 

“This is a great honor toward the resistance and it’s a very important thing that we stop flights in an international airport,” says Belal Hamada, one of several men hanging around a Gaza City gas station that has run out of gas.

A young man nearby, who gives his name only as Bakr, adds, “I wish we could not only cancel the airport flights, but bring all of Israel to a stop.”

Flight suspensions

The suspension of nearly all foreign flights to Ben Gurion Airport started with Korean Air last week. But it only became a national crisis yesterday when the US Federal Aviation Administration announced a 24-hour ban, forcing a Delta flight to turn around over Greece and causing a number of European airlines to follow suit.

Israel’s flagship carrier El Al Airlines and two smaller Israeli airlines, along with British Airways and a handful of Russian and mainly eastern European companies are still operating today. But even El Al said that the broader conflict, which has resulted in many cancellations, could result in $40 million to $50 million or more in reduced revenue.

Apart from Korean Air, the airlines made their decision to suspend flights after a rocket fell on a house in the town of Yehud, which borders Tel Aviv to the north. The decision may also have been influenced by jitters in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 by suspected pro-Russian separatists.

Hillel Avihai, an airborne terrorism expert based in Israel, says there has been no change in the security threat at Ben Gurion, where flights have been rerouted to a northbound flight path that minimizes the risk of rocket attack from Gaza.

In a statement, the airport authority implied that the US had undermined Israel in favor of Hamas. “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,” it said.

Some have speculated that the US government used the FAA to pressure Israel into a cease-fire after diplomatic efforts have been unsuccessful so far. But Mr. Avihai dismisses politics as playing any major role in the decision. 

“I see it really as a professional decision and not as a political decision,” he says, citing factors such as increased insurance premiums.

Crucial lifeline

While the suspension of flights may be short-lived – the FAA ban was for an initial 24 hours – it represents a significant blow both to Israel’s economy and its reputation.

In a country full of immigrants with only a handful of accessible border crossings, Ben Gurion Airport provides a crucial lifeline to the world for both travelers and businessmen.

Though a similar shutdown of flights occurred during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles on Israel, the highly globalized nature of travel and business today make this situation more severe economically.

“It has serious consequences, not only in the short run but more so in the long run,” says Prof. Benjamin Bental, a lecturer in economics at Haifa University.

Last year more than half a million tourists visited Israel in July and August, but bookings are reportedly down by 30 percent for this August. But potentially more devastating for Israel, which has rebranded itself as a high-tech nation with close ties to Silicon Valley and other global technology hubs, is the impact on business.

“If you think about business people abroad – in the American Midwest or Europe – saying, ‘Well, these guys are totally unreliable, it’s such a minor event’ … that has far-reaching consequences, probably immeasurable,” says Professor Bental.

Hardened feelings

To be sure, it was not Israel that decided to cancel the flights, and many Israelis are dismayed by the US response. “Of course we don’t like the decision – it signals victory for Hamas,” says Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.

But he doesn’t see this pushing Israel to back down. “I think everyone in Israel understands, if Hamas is able to bring about a cessation of air flights to Israel, this is a strategic success and it has to be dealt with,” he says. “In my view, this will only reinforce the arguments of those that demand an wider operation [in Gaza].”

It has also hardened feelings on the other side. Though Palestinians in Gaza saw it as a victory, they also say it's an indication of the lopsided nature of the conflict.

“They are killing people without mercy, and this is nothing compared to stopping an airport,” says Hassan Mazloum, a young man stopped on the street to put oil in his car. “It’s a victory for all the people and the resistance, not just Hamas.”

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