Israel’s effective loss of its only international airport for a couple of days last week—and the cloud of uncertainty that continues to hang over its operation in the future—has deeply unsettled Israelis.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned American carriers from flying to Israel, a move soon followed by many European airlines, after a rocket from Gaza landed close to Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, on July 22. The FAA and the airlines seemed especially jittery after the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over war-torn Ukraine a few days earlier, killing 298.
The suspension of flights was overturned barely 48 hours later, following great pressure from Israel. Nonetheless, it was a warning to Israelis that, now Palestinian factions in Gaza have longer-range rockets, there is a potentially more serious, collective price to be paid for Israel’s repeated military assaults on the tiny enclave.
In Israel, a country that views itself, in the words of a former prime minister, as a “villa in the jungle,” air links to the rest of the world are considered not just a luxury but also an almost existential issue.
Some fourteen million passengers pass through the airport every year, many of them visiting, or being visited by, Jewish relatives abroad. Israel’s economy also benefits from a large number of tourists.
I felt the anxiety personally, worrying about how deeply disappointed my two young children would be if my wife could not find a way home from Chicago last week.
Others drew grander parallels. One leading analyst even compared Israel’s situation to the blockade of Berlin by Russia at the start of the Cold War.
Taste of Gaza’s siege
It would be satisfying to write that Israelis, in experiencing a very temporary and partial air blockade, gained a little insight into the far worse conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, who have spent the past eight years under an Israeli-imposed siege, denied most contact with the outside world.
The coastal enclave of Gaza is penned in on all sides by fences, walls and watchtowers. It has no airport or seaport because Israel destroyed them long ago. Fishermen are barely allowed to get further than shallow waters before being fired on by Israeli gunboats, while the air above Gaza is the domain of Israel’s surveillance and weaponized drones.
The central demand Hamas has made for an acceptable ceasefire is that the siege ends and Gaza be allowed to reestablish sea and air links to the world.
But most Israelis have appeared to make no connection between their own experience and the gnawing frustration, fear and fury of the people of Gaza at their long imprisonment. Instead, they have focused on their resentment on Hamas and the foreign airlines for inflicting on them a small inconvenience.
The brief suspension of flights also exposed deeper issues concerning Israel’s current attack on Gaza, dubbed Operation Protective Edge—issues usually skirted by the war rhetoric of Israel and Hamas.
The first concerned Israel’s much-vaunted right to “self-defense” against the rockets from Gaza, a principle backed even by US President Barack Obama.
Harvard law professor and vocal Israel supporter Alan Dershowitz set out a retrospective logic for Israel’s attack, saying: “Every country in the world would do everything in its power to keep open its airports, the lifelines to its economic viability.”
True enough. But Dershowitz’s argument hardly justified Operation Protective Edge. Given that Israel has been enforcing a siege on Gaza for at least the past eight years—in fact, it destroyed the airport in 2001—it was an eloquent reminder that Hamas had a responsibility to “do everything in its power,” including attacking Israel, to restore Gaza’s own economic lifelines.
Inadvertently, Dershowitz was exposing not only the hypocrisy of Israel’s supporters, but also reminding us that international law gives the Palestinians alone a right of self-defense—against Israel’s belligerent occupation and the siege of Gaza.
Then there was the issue of Israel’s strenuous efforts to end the FAA’s suspension of flights. Its activities were hard to square with the image it portrayed of a country under a barrage of Hamas rockets, terrorizing its population.
Last week, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, echoed the official refrain, that Hamas was hell-bent on Israel’s “destruction.” He added: “There is no country in the world that would tolerate such an assault on its citizens.”
The casualty figures told a different story. Before Israel invaded Gaza, the Palestinian death toll stood in the hundreds, while Israel had only one fatality.
But if Israelis really were under such a serious threat, surely it would be unwise, even reckless, for international airlines to be risking their passengers’ lives by flying into an airport next to Tel Aviv, well within the range of rockets.
Confronted with this argument, Israeli officials suddenly and dramatically changed their tune. Even as most other carriers cancelled flights, all of Israel’s own airlines, such as El Al, continued to fly in and out of Ben Gurion as normal.
‘The airport is safe’
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tried to reassure the airlines: “Our airport is safe; our airport is secure.”
But which was it? Were most Israelis in danger from the rockets, despite the low casualty figures, or was most of Israel safe? Regev tried to deflect attention from this conundrum with a quite astounding statement.
Israel has developed a rocket interception system—mostly paid for by the US—called Iron Dome that it says is protecting population centers. Regev argued that Israel had tracked the rocket near the airport and allowed it through because “we saw that it wasn’t going to hit inside the airport.”
Though few bothered to check, a quick look at a map showed how improbable that account was. The path of a rocket from Gaza to Yehud, the neighborhood that was hit, would have passed over part of the airport, through its air space, close to aircraft taking off and landing. The idea that Israel was not concerned about this happening, given Israel’s heightened security fears about Ben Gurion, is simply inconceivable.
So it must indicate something else. There were a few possibilities.
It may be, as several missile interception experts both in Israel and abroad have suggested, that Iron Dome’s true success rate is far lower than claimed. It could be as low as 5 percent, says Ted Postol, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some have branded it “iron sieve.”
Or it may be that Israel does not have either enough Iron Dome launchers or enough interception missiles—which cost as much as 50,000 US dollars a time—to intercept all the rockets being fired as Palestinian factions get better at reaching population centers.
Or, as one analyst with close ties to the Israeli military claimed, it may be that the Iron Dome crew was “ordered to be extra cautious about interceptions near the airport that could interfere with the planes flying above it.” While this seemed a plausible explanation, it did not address the FAA’s concerns about safety. It simply reframed them.
Iron Dome threat
The reality is that an Iron Dome interception missile is far more dangerous to a plane—if it locks onto it by mistake—than the rockets fired from Gaza, which means that if Hamas fires rockets at Ben Gurion, it creates a double threat—from the rockets and from the interception missiles.
Whatever the correct explanation, Israel’s airport patently isn’t safe during these confrontations—and is likely to get less safe in the future. Hamas rockets can reach Ben Gurion and, though not exactly precise, need only to hit in the vicinity to shut Israel’s gateway to the world.
So why isn’t Hamas barraging Ben Gurion airport in the hope that one or more rockets get past Iron Dome, or that Israel mistakenly shoots down a plane with an interception missile? That way, it could give Israel a taste of what a real blockade feels like.
Some Israeli analysts claim that is precisely what Hamas has been doing, but Iron Dome has saved the day.
But another possibility, suggested by the limitations noted above, is that—whatever its rhetoric—Hamas has mostly avoided targeting Ben Gurion, accepting, however reluctantly, that there are certain unwritten rules in these now almost ritual engagements.
Cynically, Israel prefers in Gaza to “mow the lawn,” as the Israeli military term it: remind Hamas and ordinary Palestinians who is boss through intermittent bouts of extreme violence. The goal is to weaken Hamas without actually overthrowing it and thereby leave the enclave lawless and unmanageable.
Hamas, by contrast, wants to inflict enough psychological and economic damage on Israel to encourage Israel to change policy, but not so much that Israel will feel compelled either to topple the Islamic group or to reoccupy Gaza.
The rocket on Ben Gurion airport risked changing Israel’s calculations. Is it possible that Hamas decided to increase the pressure on Israel—with a kind of warning shot—in growing frustration at Israel’s mounting attacks on its core infrastructure, such as its tunnel network in Gaza, and Israel’s refusal to engage in meaningful ceasefire negotiations?
Whatever the truth, that rocket suggests the stakes in the conflict are only getting higher for Israel.
• This article first appeared in Majalla