Ash Grounds First Israel Flight From N. America Since Eruption

Cloud from Icelandic volcano expected to arrive here by Thursday, but ministry says it won't pose health threat

The wave of canceled flights to and from Israel showed no signs of letting up as the cloud of volcanic ash emanating from Iceland continued to spread over central and eastern Europe yesterday, feeding fears that the aviation crisis is nowhere near its end.

The ash cloud reached the fringes of the Black Sea and Turkey yesterday, but is not expected to reach Israel or anywhere else in the eastern Mediterranean today or tomorrow. Only on Wednesday or Thursday are winds from Europe expected to reach this region, but the extent to which the ash-laden clouds will affect Israel and its neighbors remains unclear. The Environmental Protection Ministry stated that the amount of ash expected to remain in these clouds is negligible and will not present a health threat.

Yesterday, air quality measurements taken from Eastern Europe and Turkey showed a significant drop in ash concentration. Still, the sheer size of the cloud, which extended to eight kilometers above ground, makes predicting air quality extremely difficult.

The disruptions in air traffic reached additional European destinations yesterday, and for the first time, also grounded an Israel-bound flight from North America - an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv and back.

Today, El Al announced that it would probably operate flights to southern European destinations that until now had been closed to air traffic. The likely destinations are Bucharest, Kiev, Sofia, Munich, Berlin, Budapest, Barcelona, Milan, Warsaw and Marseille. But at this point, only regular flights will be activated.

Some 20,000 Israelis are estimated to have been stranded in airports abroad. At first, airlines funded their room and board, but they are now being required to foot the bill themselves, as the ash cloud falls under the "acts of God" airlines are not required to cover.

The weather has also kept 120 participants in a trip tracing Theodor Herzl's footsteps across Europe and into Israel from landing in this country.

The Zionist activists were supposed to have arrived here in time for Memorial Day, as part of a World Zionist Organization trip celebrating Herzl's legacy. Instead, the stoppage of flights from Europe has left them stranded in Budapest.

"It's very upsetting," David Cohen, a 29-year-old British participant, told Haaretz. "I had never spent Independence Day in Israel and I was looking forward to it."

Cohen and the other marooned travelers are part of the "Journey in Herzl's Footsteps" delegation, marking 150 years since his death. The delegation's hectic seven-day program took them across Europe, following Herzl's journeys while lobbying for a Jewish homeland. It was supposed to culminate in Israel's 62nd Independence Day celebrations.

David Breakstone, head of the WZO's Department for Zionist Activities, said from Budapest that the organization is looking into having the participants bused to Athens and then flown to Israel in time for Independence Day. However, about half the participants are Americans, who lack the necessary visas for some of the countries that separate Hungary from Greece. In the meantime, the 120 activists are planning an alternative Memorial Day ceremony in Budapest.

"People are not so worried about staying in Budapest," he said, adding that the prospect of a 30-hour bus ride to Athens is raising more concern among the participants, who each paid just under $2,000 for the trip.

Cohen and other delegation members were encouraged by international media reports saying that El Al and other Israeli airlines were "pulling all the stops" in order to get travelers into Israel in time for Independence Day.

But Breakstone, a veteran Israeli citizen who immigrated here from the U.S., sounded skeptical. "Unless the Israel Air Force sends a low-flying Hercules plane to get us, there's a very good chance that we won't be flying to Israel, Uganda or anywhere else," he said.