The importance of Ben Gurion airport to Israel

After a reported Gaza rocket strike near Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, the US suspended commercial flights to and from Tel Aviv. 

Ariel Schalit/AP/File
Passengers are seen in Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Jan. 5, 2010.

A rocket blast near Israel's main international airport triggered major flight cancelations today for the first time in more than two decades. While the recent destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 probably has airlines and regulators more nervous than usual, rocket fire from Gaza now poses more of a threat to Israeli civil aviation than ever before. 

Why is Ben Gurion so important to Israel?

Imagine if the United States had only one airport and that driving in and out of the country wasn't really an option. That should give you an idea of how important Ben Gurion Airport is to both Israel's economy and its sense of national well-being. The airport is named for David Ben-Gurion, a Pole who emigrated to Ottoman Palestine in the early 20th Century and devoted his life to the Zionist ideal. In 1948 he proclaimed the country's independence and became its first prime minister. 

And for the vast majority of Israelis Ben Gurion has been the national gateway for generations. About 30 percent of Jewish Israelis are immigrants from other countries and many others continue to have extended family abroad, particularly in the US and Europe. Overseas travel is common for both business and pleasure, and the airport is seen as a crucial link to the rest of the world. Last year, about 14 million passengers passed through the airport in a country with a population of about 8 million. Moreover, foreign tourists and businessmen rely on the airport as well, and extended closures or fears about Ben Gurion could easily see investment diverted elsewhere. 

What happened to trigger the cancellations?

At the moment, it's still unclear. A rocket from Gaza landed around one mile from the airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but further details have yet to be released, such as how big a payload the rocket carried. After that report, a Delta 747 flying out of New York with 273 passengers diverted while over the Mediterranean and landed in France. The airline then announced it was suspending all Israel flights until further notice, and United Airlines followed suit. The FAA issued a notice today banning all US passenger and cargo flights to and from Tel Aviv for at least 24 hours. European airlines have also canceled flights to Israel. 

The recent downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine is probably a factor in weighing the risks of flying into Israel amid the Gaza conflict. The Malaysian carrier has been subjected to withering criticism for flying over a warzone, despite the fact that dozens of carriers were doing likewise and missile attacks on civil aviation are exceedingly rare.

What are the real risks? 

Israel's military says that Hamas's rocket arsenal has already been depleted by half to about 5,000. The rockets, which have killed two Israeli civilians, have proven even less accurate than in past flareups, and Israel claims a high success rate for its Iron Dome rocket defense system.

But some of the militant-fired rockets do fly farther than in the past, putting parts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at risk – as well as the airport, which is about 15 miles southeast of Tel Aviv and about 40 miles from the northern edge of Gaza. A successful attack on Ben Gurion, one of the most intensely secured airports in the world, would be a real blow to Israel – and would probably provoke a withering response from Israel towards the perpetrators. 

Has this happened before?

The last time major international carriers suspended flights to and from Tel Aviv was in 1991, ahead of and during the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles towards Israel. Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, setting off a march to war. The result of that war, and the terror sowed by the Scuds, hurt Israel's economy that year. One early measure of the potential economic effects of this conflict was an announcement by El Al, Israel's national carrier, today that it expects to lose at least $40 million in the current quarter due to passenger cancellations.

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