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U.S. extends ban on flights into Israel's Ben Gurion Airport

By Josh Levs, Ben Brumfield and Dana Ford, CNN
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Security in Israel is "as good as it gets" says Jerusalem mayor
  • Bloomberg says you have to take reasonable precautions, but not go overboard
  • Hamas spokesman: "Isolating Israel from the world is a great victory"
  • The U.S. ban on flights now runs through midday Thursday

(CNN) -- Critics lashed out Wednesday against the Federal Aviation Administration, which extended its ban on U.S. airlines' flights to and from Tel Aviv, Israel.

Calling the decision a "mistake," Michael Bloomberg -- who arrived in Israel on El Al, Israel's national airline -- praised Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport as most secure airport on Earth.

"The real world is that there are things going on near airports all over the world. Ben Gurion airport, because Israel has been threatened since it was formed in 1948, is the most secure airport," the former New York mayor told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

"You have to take reasonable precautions but you cannot shut down everything just because one terrorist someplace on the other side of the world says I'm going to be a threat," he said.

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Map: Ben Gurion Airport  Map: Ben Gurion Airport
Map: Ben Gurion AirportMap: Ben Gurion Airport

The ban now runs through 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday.

The FAA said it is "working closely with the government of Israel to review the significant new information they have provided and determine whether potential risks to U.S. civil aviation are mitigated so the agency can resolve concerns as quickly as possible."

The agency did not detail what the "significant new information" is. But the Israeli government told CNN that Ben Gurion is safe from any rocket attack by militants in Gaza.

"The security in Ben Gurion and in Israel is as good as it gets," said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. "The reality is that the risk coming to Israel is minimal, and if it would be larger we would take the initiative and tell everyone not to come here."

Hamas: 'Great victory for the resistance'

The ban was enacted Tuesday after a rocket struck about a mile from the airport. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told CNN the military had tracked the rocket, as it does in general with those fired by militants from Gaza. Israel chose not to shoot the rocket down, knowing the airport would not be hit. "Any incoming rocket that would hit the airport ... would immediately be taken out by our system," Regev said.

Ben Gurion was still expecting 206 flights Wednesday despite cancellations from U.S. and some European airlines, Israel's Transport Ministry said.

American Airlines, which owns US Airways, said it will consider resuming service to the Israeli airport once the FAA approves.

Delta Air Lines said Tuesday it was suspending flights until further notice.

German airline Lufthansa said that "based on an analysis of presently available information," it will continue to suspend flights Thursday.

The European Aviation Safety Agency recommended avoiding Ben Gurion on Tuesday.

Air Canada canceled Wednesday night's flight to Tel Aviv, as well as its return on Thursday. The airline typically flies one flight a day from Toronto to Tel Aviv.

But British Airways continued flying into Israel even after other airlines canceled.

Hamas hailed the slowdown as a clear victory.

"The resistance success in stopping the air traffic and isolating Israel from the world is a great victory for the resistance," said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Bloomberg: Banning flights rewards Hamas

Bloomberg landed safely Wednesday and tweeted a photograph of himself sitting down with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu.

"I just wanted to do something personally to show my support for standing up for what's right. I think Israel is doing that. Hamas is trying to kill the Palestinians and kill the Israelis and somebody's got to say that they've got to stop this," he told CNN's Blitzer.

The exchange grew heated when Blitzer asked about the State Department's travel advisory for Israel and the West Bank.

"I think the State Department is just overreacting in typical bureaucratic fashion," Bloomberg said. When asked whether he thought there were political reasons behind the advisory, Bloomberg replied: "By asking the question you're implying that our government does things for political reasons. ... Just the allegation against our government I personally take as an offense."

He praised Ben Gurion Airport as the best-protected such facility in the world.

"The flight restrictions are a mistake that hand Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately," Bloomberg said late Tuesday.

In an opinion column for Bloomberg View, part of the media company he owns, the former New York mayor compared his trip to Israel to the way he responded to terror threats in the city.

Sometimes it's prudent to act out an abundance of caution during a crisis, he wrote.

"But closing down access to major infrastructure networks in the face of terrorist threats can be self-defeating," he said.

The FAA said its decision was necessary due to the "potentially hazardous situation."

And after the shooting down last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, some jittery travelers understand the FAA decision.

"You have a rocket and you bring down 300 people at one shot," one said. But it didn't stop her from boarding her El Al flight.

The airport is a key economic artery for Israel.

While more than 2,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, 6,000 flights have landed and departed at Ben Gurion, the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel said. "It is not a miracle and not a trick," the authority's director, Giora Romm, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "We know how to defend Ben Gurion, period."

CNN analyst: Incident could bring diplomatic consequences

It's unusual for the FAA to prohibit U.S. carriers from flying to a particular airport, said Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general.

"In the past when the FAA has done it, there have been diplomatic consequences," she said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry landed Wednesday at Ben Gurion on a mission to try to stop all hostilities. The airline suspensions didn't affect his flight because he traveled on a military plane.

The flight suspensions have stranded some travelers in Tel Aviv. And others, who flew out on Israeli carriers, had to run for cover before takeoff when sirens went off at the airport.

"You had to run for about a minute to get to shelter and just wait there for about 10 minutes," a passenger arriving in New York from Tel Aviv told CNN affiliate NY1, describing what happened before the all-clear sounded. "It was nerve-racking, actually."

Rabbi Shalom Lewis, whose synagogue is in an Atlanta suburb, was stuck at Ben Gurion with a group of American travelers all looking for a way to get home to the United States. But none was running scared over missiles.

"Every one of them was just aggravated by the inability to get home easily, but nobody was afraid," Lewis told NY1.

On Wednesday, the Transport Ministry ordered the opening of the small Uvda airport in the far southeast of Israel.

Canceling flights to Israel is a serious blow to the country's economy, said Romm of the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel. Tourism is a major source of income. Last year, Israel received a record 3.5 million visitors, according to its Central Bureau of Statistics.

Before the recent violence, the bureau reported a record 1.4 million visitors for the first half of 2014. The violence will likely put a damper on tourism.

Travelers reassess plans amid Mideast conflict

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter, Amir Tal, Umaro Djau, Aaron Cooper, Marlena Baldacci, Justin Lear, Marnie Hunter, Caitlin Schmidt, Katia Hetter, Rene Marsh and Karen Smith contributed to this report.

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