WATCH: Diplomacy is finally picking up steam and the pressure for Hamas to accept a ceasefire is mounting. But the death toll continues to climb, as Israel faces off with militants in the Gaza Strip. Eric Sorensen reports.
TORONTO and JERUSALEM – A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Israel’s main airport Tuesday, wounding one Israeli and prompting the U.S., Air Canada and some European airlines to suspend flights to Israel in a reflection of high anxiety over air travel after last week’s attack on a Malaysian jet over Ukraine.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has restricted all U.S. airlines from flying to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for 24 hours, and Air Canada has cancelled its Tuesday evening flight.
Air Canada, which operates direct flights from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to Ben Gurion International Airport, said it is “evaluating” the situation in Tel Aviv moving forward, and cancelled Tuesday’s flight.
The FAA’s 24-hour prohibition on Tel Aviv-bound flights went into effect at 12:15 p.m. ET.
The notification came shortly after Delta Airlines, United Airlines and U.S. Airways cancelled flights to Israel’s second most populated city and amid more rockets fired at the city from the Gaza Strip.
“The notice was issued in response to a rocket strike which landed approximately one mile from Ben Gurion International Airport,” a statement on the FAA’s website read.
WATCH: Aftermath of rocket attack that caused flight cancellations to Tel Aviv
One Delta flight with 290 passengers and crew on board was already en route from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Tel Aviv when the airline cancelled its flights. Delta said the flight was diverted to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
American Airlines (which recently merged with U.S. Airways) said flights have been cancelled in response to “security concerns” at Tel Aviv airport.
“For customers with future travel plans to Tel Aviv, we have extended our travel advisory and our flexible ticketing policy through August 31. Customers who choose to change their travel plans can do so without change fees,” said American Airlines spokesperson Michelle Mohr in an email to Global News.
The FAA said it will continue to monitor the situation and issue “updated instructions as soon as conditions permit.”
Germany’s Lufthansa, Air France and Alitalia have also suspended their flights, some of them for the next 36 hours. The European Aviation Safety Agency said it “strongly recommends” that airlines refrain from operating flights to and from Tel Aviv, and said it would “monitor the situation and advise on any update as the situation develops.”
Israel’s Transportation Ministry called on the airlines to reverse their decision and said it was trying to explain that the airport was “safe for landings and departures.”
The fallout from the rocket was the latest blow to Israel on a day when it announced that an Israeli soldier went missing following a deadly battle in the Palestinian territory, where the Israelis are fighting Hamas militants in the third conflict in just over five years.
With the casualty toll mounting on both sides, the international community has stepped up diplomatic efforts and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon met with Egyptian and Israeli officials in a bid to revive a cease-fire proposal that was rejected by Hamas.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets toward Israel, and several heading toward the area of Ben-Gurion Airport have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, but police spokeswoman Luba Samri said Tuesday’s landing was the closet to the airport since fighting began on July 8.
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WATCH: Rockets continue to rain down between Israel and Gaza as diplomatic efforts continue
The disruption to air travel came as Israel is increasingly suffering from the effects of the war in Gaza after nearly two weeks of largely remaining insulated as the air defence system dependably zapped incoming Hamas rockets from the skies and the military successfully repelled infiltration attempts on the ground and from the sea.
Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes pummeled a wide range of locations in Gaza and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the two week war that has killed at least 609 Palestinians and 29 Israelis – 27 soldiers and two civilians. The U.N. office of humanitarian affairs estimates that at least 75 per cent of the Palestinian deaths were civilians, including dozens of children.
Later on Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said he was “appalled” by reports that aid workers found stockpiled rockets in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
He was equally upset by Israeli allegations that UN workers gave the rockets to Hamas.
“Canada unequivocally calls on the United Nations to launch an immediate independent investigation to determine the facts surrounding these reports. Canada also calls on the United Nations to ensure that in the second case, no rockets are returned to Hamas,” Baird said in a statement.
“If proven true, this would fly in the face of all that the United Nations should stand for as an institution committed to the peace and security of its members.”
But the aid agency says it merely followed its own prior practices by returning the rockets to Palestinian authorities not connected to Hamas.
“As soon as the rockets were discovered, UNRWA staff were withdrawn from the premises … The Agency immediately informed the relevant parties and is pursuing all possible measures for the removal of the objects in order to preserve the safety and security of the school,” it said in a statement issued prior to Baird’s.
“UNRWA will launch a comprehensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding this incident.”
The agency provides assistance and protection to about five million registered Palestine refugees in the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, according to its website.
Tuesday wasn’t the first time Israeli media accused the UN agency of aiding Hamas.
The UNRWA made headlines over the weekend when Israel’s Channel Two news network was forced to retract a story that falsely claimed a UNRWA ambulance was used to transport militants in Gaza on Saturday night. It was the second Channel Two retraction related to UNRWA’s neutrality record, after an October 2012 incident.
“There are many false reports circulating about UNRWA right now. This is another regrettable example in that long catalogue of sloppy journalism,” said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness in the release, referring to Sunday‘s retraction.
Earlier on Tuesday, hundreds of Palestinian-Canadian protesters marched through Ottawa Tuesday, demanding Prime Minister Stephen Harper denounce Israel’s military actions in Gaza.
There were screams of “shame, shame” when a handful of pro-Israel demonstrators draped in an Israeli flag shouted “no more terror” from a nearby sidewalk, but police and march organizers were able to contain the crowd and keep the two sides apart.
Harper has insisted Canada stands firmly at Israel’s side in the ongoing conflict.
The fate of another Israeli soldier who went missing following a deadly battle in the Gaza Strip remained unknown, a defence official said Tuesday.
It was not immediately known if the missing soldier was alive or dead, the Israeli defence official told The Associated Press. The disappearance raised the possibility that he had been captured by Hamas – a nightmare scenario for Israel. In the past, Israel has paid a heavy price in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remains held by its enemies.
Military officials said the soldier, identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, was among seven soldiers in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile in a battle in Gaza over the weekend. The other six have been confirmed as dead, but no remains have been identified as Shaul, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident with media.
Hamas’ claimed earlier this week that it had captured an Israeli soldier. Israel’s U.N. ambassador initially denied the claim but the military neither confirmed nor denied it.
A representative of Shaul’s family, Racheli Gazit, said that “so long as the verification has not been completed … as far as the family is concerned Oron is not a fallen soldier."
WATCH: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East Tuesday morning, trying to work out a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants. Tracie Potts reports.
Abductions of Israeli soldiers have turned in the past into drawn-out mediation with opponents leading to prisoner releases. In 2008, Israel released five Lebanese militants in exchange for the remains of two soldiers killed in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Also in 2006, Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for his return in 2011.
Hamas had threatened in the past to kidnap more Israelis and Israel says the militant group’s attacks through tunnels that stretch into Israel are for this purpose.
Egypt, Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
In Cairo, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Egyptian officials Tuesday in the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict. Ban then travelled to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community to hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.
“What we’re seeing here with Hamas is another instance of Islamist extremism, violent extremism that has no resolvable grievance,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Ban in Tel Aviv. He compared Hamas with al-Qaida and extremist Islamic militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa.
“Hamas is like ISIS, Hamas is like al Qaida, Hamas is like Hezbollah, Hamas is like Boko Haram,” he said.
Netanyahu was responding to a call by Ban that the sides address the root causes of the fighting and work toward bringing about a two-state solution.
“My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year,” Ban said. Netanyahu responded that Hamas, a group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, does not want a two-state solution.
Hamas, with some support from Qatar and Turkey, wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting fire. The Islamic militant group has no faith in mediation by Egypt’s rulers, who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago and tightened restrictions on Gaza – to the point of driving Hamas into its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.
Laub reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report.
With files from The Canadian Press
© Shaw Media and The Associated Press, 2014