Will the Threat to Israel's Only International Airport Be a Game-changer?

Whether or not flights in and out of Israel are suspended for any length of time, the suspension of flights by several major air carriers is Hamas' first major achievement of this conflict.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A departure time flight board displays various cancellations as passengers stand nearby at Ben-Gurion International Airport during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, July 22, 2014.
A departure time flight board displays various cancellations as passengers stand nearby at Ben-Gurion International Airport during the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, July 22, 2014. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

With a single rocket, which evaded the Iron Dome missile defense system and exploded between two houses in the Tel Aviv suburb of Yehud, Hamas might just have achieved what it failed to do with nearly 2,000 rockets fired at Israel since the beginning of this round of warfare 15 days ago.

No one was injured – the family living in the house that was almost totally destroyed by shrapnel was not at home – but a rocket landing so near Israel's gateway to the world, Ben-Gurion International Airport, could conceivably cause untold damage to the country's self-confidence and prove to be the game-changer in this current conflict.

The decision of the United State's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to advise the three U.S. carriers flying to Israel (Delta, United and U.S. Airways) to suspend their flights to Israel for 24 hours, could be just a temporary blip, another inconvenience caused by the current security situation. If the suspension is extended indefinitely, for as long as the rockets are flying, and if it spreads to the airlines of other countries – a number of European carriers have already followed suit and Korean Air suspended flights already last week – it would create an intolerable situation for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets have been flying around the airport for two weeks; sharing the airspace with them have been the Iron Dome's Tamir interceptor missiles which are potentially more lethal to an airliner than any Hamas missile.

The airport's air-traffic control, which is fully integrated into the air force's command-and-control structure, along with the early-warning system against the Gaza rockets, has prepared alternative routes and approaches to Ben-Gurion's runways from the north. These approaches achieve what the air-force calls "minimal exposure" to any threat to the airliners and the possibility of a rocket hitting a plane is statistically very small.

The rocket falling on Yehud did not change that situation. One factor that could have changed the FAA assessment was probably the downing of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, with the deaths of all 298 crew and passengers on board.

Whether this is indeed a bizarre convergence of the two conflicts and the understandable jumpiness of the global civil aviation industry, or whether there are also behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressures at work, this doesn't necessarily mean that Israel will be cut off from the world.

Tens of thousands of Israelis planning to fly abroad, tourists who were to leave and those who were scheduled to arrive here in the next few days will have had their plans disrupted. The national carrier, El Al, however, will continue to fly and since there have been many cancellations already, it will carry many of those who were set to fly on foreign airlines.

But the psychological effect on Israelis will be significant and this could have a longer-term implication for Israel's economy.

The last time there was a wide-scale suspension of flights to Israel by foreign airlines was in early 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Israel during the First Gulf War. Israelis then did not travel abroad as often as they do now and that conflict did not happen during the summer vacation period. More significantly, the local economy was not integrated into the global markets as it is today, with hundreds of international companies having research centers in the Israeli high-tech hubs and thousands of companies here totally reliant on export markets. It took Israel's economy many years to break down the reluctance of foreign corporations to invest and work here – a few days or a couple of weeks with limited air-travel probably won't change that, but it may well create a temporary feeling of siege.

It may be premature to predict such a development, but Netanyahu, who is more aware than most of the importance of the international business ties and the confidence of the markets, may not be willing to put it to the test.

Around 90 percent of all entrances and exits to Israel from abroad are through Ben-Gurion. This is one of the national infrastructure's most crucial links; Israel's oxygen tube reaching out of a hostile neighborhood. There have been a number of plans over the years to build a second international airport, but while there are a number of military and civil airfields with long enough runways, there is no airport today with the necessary facilities and transport links to replace Ben-Gurion for more than a few hours.

This may prove to be a game-changer in a conflict which is now entering its third week. It could provide further impetus for the government in seeking a speedy ceasefire with Hamas, but that seems doubtful.

Even a partial suspension of operations at Ben-Gurion is a major coup for Hamas, which has been so starved of any real achievements that they are pretending to have captured an IDF soldier who was almost certainly killed on Saturday night, though his remains have yet to be identified. Accepting Hamas' terms for a ceasefire now is unthinkable. It is much more likely that, faced with the prospect of more rockets cutting Israel off from the international air routes, the government will be inclined to order a much more devastating blow, a wider ground operation to occupy the rocket-launching sites or even directed at Hamas' underground headquarters, with dreadful implications for the people of Gaza living above.

Passengers at Ben-Gurion Airport after flights to the U.S. were cancelled on July 22, 2014.Credit: David Bachar

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