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US airlines to resume flights to Israel but no respite in Gaza conflict

The Federal Aviation Authority had stirred controversy in Israel by telling airlines to avoid Tel Aviv's airport. More than 700 Palestinians and 30 Israelis have died since fighting began July 8. 

Baz Ratner/Reuters
A passenger looks out of a window at Ben Gurion International airport, near Tel Aviv, today. Israel won a partial reprieve from the economic pain of its Gaza war on Thursday with the lifting of a US ban on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, as fighting pushed the Palestinian death toll over 700.

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Despite continued fighting between Hamas and Israel, which has eluded fitful international mediation efforts, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on US flights into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport late last night. It is a small break for Israel, which had protested the ban as rewarding terrorism. 

More than 700 Palestinians and 30 Israelis have been killed in the fighting that began July 8, reports the BBC. And the UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, said today a cease-fire was vital for Palestinians in Gaza Strip, where food is running low and 44 percent of the territory is now a “no go” zone.

Egypt has been exploring a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, while the US, Turkey, and Qatar have also been involved in diplomatic talks to end the violence.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Human Rights Council authorized an inquiry into alleged war crimes in Gaza. According to the UN’s top human rights official, both Hamas and Israel have likely committed these crimes.

Officials in Egypt are pushing for a humanitarian cease-fire to take effect over the weekend, in time for Islam’s biggest celebration, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, Reuters reports.

However, Reuters notes that the international pressure for a cease-fire is unlikely to compel Israel to make concessions at this point, according to one Israeli security official:

"If the talk is of a humanitarian hiatus for - this is not pleasant to say - removing bodies, all kinds of things that are connected to the civilian population in the short-term, this might be weighed," the minister, Gilad Erdan, told Israel Radio.

"But I will oppose any ceasefire until it is clear both that the tunnels [connecting Gaza and Israel] will be destroyed and what will happen in the post-ceasefire period - how we will guarantee that quiet for the residents of Israel will really be preserved in the long-term."

FAA flight ban lifted

Some wondered if the suspension of flights from the US, Canada, and Europe might work as an indirect pressure point on Israel, which relies heavily on international air travel for its economy.  The FAA ban was a response to a Gaza-fired rocket that landed a short distance from Tel Aviv’s international airport.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy wrote, these was the first such cancellations at Israel’s international airport in over two decades.

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….

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 crucial link to the rest of the world. Last year, about 14 million passengers passed through the airport in a country with a population that's 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.

Before lifting the ban late Wednesday night, the FAA said it discussed the security situation with US government officials and assessed ongoing security threats. Several European airlines have continued their suspension of flights, reports the Associated Press. 

Both Israelis and Palestinians viewed the FAA flight ban as a victory for Hamas.

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

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

“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,” Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University told the Monitor. “In my view, this will only reinforce the arguments of those that demand an wider operation [in Gaza].”

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