Low Approach Over Palestinian Towns Exposes Planes Landing in Israel to Ground Fire

Israel's defense establishment approved the route over the West Bank ■ Former civil aviation official: Even if no planes shot down, a bullet hit would 'open the gates of hell'

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File photo: El Al plane readies for landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.
File photo: El Al plane readies for landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.

The Israel Airports Authority has inaugurated a new flight path into Ben-Gurion International Airport, despite the fact that it necessitates flying at a low altitude on the outskirts of Ramallah, Beitunia and other Palestinian locales in the West Bank. Despite the security risks entailed in possible exposure of these aircraft to ground fire while they pass over hostile territory, Israel's defense establishment approved the new route. 

The airport authority finished preparations for the new landing procedure at the beginning of the year, but it was inaugurated now because of both increased air traffic at the airport during the summer months and recent problems with the Global Positioning System in Israel's airspace.

This situation had led to an almost total cessation of incoming flights using the previous route, which passed over the city of Modi'in.

The defense establishment approved the new approach path a year ago, but it was only implemented two weeks ago, after installation of an Instrument Landing System that enables landing in cases where the pilots have no visual contact with the runway. Two additional routes for incoming aircraft, from the north and northeast, continue to be open.

A former high-ranking official at the Civil Aviation Authority explained while additional flight paths sometimes need to be opened, no such route deep inside the West Bank – especially at a low altitude – had been approved before, even during emergencies such as Operations Cast Lead and Defensive Edge, in the Gaza Strip, in recent years. 

"If a plane is fired at, it may not be brought down," he noted, but it will be damaged and such an incident "would open the gates of hell." 

Because of GPS-related disruptions affecting the air traffic – which Israeli defense officials have attributed to Russia – the authorities stopped flights using the previous route over Modi'in two weeks ago. In June, 1,291 airplanes used that route, but the number dropped to 18 in July (in cases where pilots received special permission).

According to defense officials, the disruptions began a month ago as a result of electronic warfare activities launched by the Russian air force, in an effort to defend aircraft operating in Syrian skies. For its part, the Russian embassy has denied any involvement in the problems affecting flights at Ben-Gurion airport.

The National Security Council said that at the request of the Israel Aviation Authority, and because of the increase in the number of landings, the defense establishment carefully studied possible routes east of Ben-Gurion airport before approving the new one. 

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that the army and the defense establishment gave the green light to the airport authority to institute the new procedure for incoming flights.

Civil aviation officials explained that as part of improvements done in recent years, the automated ILS system – which ensures accurate and safe landings in almost all weather conditions – has been installed on runways at the airport. Before the system was activated on runway No. 30, now used by the planes landing via the West Bank, adjustments were made and the Israel Air Force also gave its approval.

One of the advantages of the ILS is that pilots do not need to depend on receipt of a GPS signal when charting their course into the airport. 

The Civil Aviation Authority also noted that there are several landing procedures involving passage over West Bank airspace, and "this is not the first route demanding flights at similar altitudes. Consultations were conducted with the relevant defense authorities in this case as in that of other instances of flights over the West Bank.