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Israel Scrambles to Restore Foreign Flights to Tel Aviv

By & VOA News

Secretary of State John Kerry refused a request by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for his intercession for lifting the FAA directive suspending US airlines flights to Israel. Kerry replied that he can't interfere in a decision by the FAA and in any case those decisions are reviewed every 24 hours.

Israel tried on Wednesday to get U.S. and European commercial flights to Tel Aviv restored after some carriers suspended services, insisting its main airport there was safe despite being targeted by Palestinian rockets.

Israeli authorities emphasized the success of the Iron Dome interceptor system in protecting Ben Gurion Airport from rockets fired by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, as well as a precautionary narrowing of air corridors since fighting erupted on July 8.

About 30 foreign airlines have suspended flights to Ben Gurion. Three of them were American, acting in accordance with a Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) ban issued on Tuesday, which was extended by 24 hours on Wednesday. Turkish Airlines also extended suspension of its flights for another 24 hours.

The FAA said it was responding to a Palestinian rocket that struck a building two kilometers (1.25 miles) from the airport. Israel said the damage was from debris left by that its Iron Dome system had shot down. "Our airport is safe. Our airport is secure. And we hope the American carriers will be flying to Israel soon," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said in an interview on MSNBC.

Israeli officials described the FAA notice as too hasty and affected by international jitters over the shooting down last week of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. Giora Romm, director-general of Israel's Civil Aviation Authority, said he spoke with FAA counterparts and gave the agency a host of information on the safety of the airport.

Romm dismissed comparisons between the relatively unsophisticated rockets made by Gazan militants and the Russian-built radar-guided missile which the West believes brought down the Malaysia Airlines flight with the loss of 298 lives. "I am a little upset by the hysteria from that rocket [from Gaza]," he told Reuters. "One of the most unbelievable arguments is that there is connection with rockets and the ground-to-air missile that shot down the Malaysian aircraft in Ukraine."

The United States is still assessing the capabilities of the Hamas rockets, the U.S. State Department said in a statement. The statement says Hamas does have rockets that can reach Ben Gurion, although their accuracy is limited. Whether Hamas has heat-seeking missiles has not been determined, the statement said.

Israeli airlines continued flying and the Tourism Ministry said on Wednesday that 22 foreign carriers were still landing at Ben Gurion, among them British Airways, Iberia and Aeroflot. Some 209 flights were to operate at Ben Gurion on Wednesday, with 132,000 arrivals and departures, the ministry said. Among the European airlines that have suspended flights are Germany's Lufthansa and its subsidiaries, including Austrian Airlines and the airline Swiss. U.S. Airways planned to resume flights to and from Israel on Thursday.

Flag carrier El Al has picked up some of the slack and used a larger jet than normal on its morning flight from Zurich to accommodate Swiss passengers. Swiss code shares with El Al. El Al also is seeking approval to fly planes to Turkey to bring home an estimated 4,000 Israelis stranded there. Israeli skies remain open, and several carriers have maintained flights to and from Ben-Gurion, including British Airways, Thai Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Ukraine International Airlines.

Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called the FAA decision "out of place" and a "reward to terrorism." However, he said Ovda Airport, used mostly by military aircraft and situated near the southern resort of Eilat, was ready as an alternative to Ben Gurion. Lying deep in the Negev desert, 152 km (98 miles) from Gaza, Ovda is beyond the proven range of Palestinian rockets. Officials from European carriers said Ovda was too small and remote from Tel Aviv and nearby Jerusalem.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel on Tuesday night on El Al in a show of solidarity. "Ben Gurion is the best-protected airport in the world, and El Al flights have been regularly flying in and out of it safely," he said on his webpage. "The flight restrictions are a mistake that hands Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately."

Small cruise ships have also stopped calling at Israel's Ashdod port at the request of port officials. "Hamas will no doubt claim a major propaganda victory," said Ben Vogel, editor of IHS Jane's Airport Review, noting Hamas had failed to deliver on a July 9 threat to hit Ben Gurion. "But the international aviation community appears to be in no mood to take risks near conflict zones, especially in the context of the surface-to-air missile shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine on July 17."

Two homes in Yehud were damaged by rocket shrapnel. One house suffered a direct hit on a storage annex, sustaining heavy damage. Fortunately, the house was empty at the time. Rescue crews and police rushed to the scene, including police sappers and Homefront Command officers. Dan District Commander Effy Mishov said, "Fortunately, there were no injuries."

Mazi Meir, who owns one of the houses that was struck by shrapnel, was at work at the time and her family was not at home. Upon seeing the damage, Meir began to feel unwell and contacted a hospital. Her husband, Aryeh Meir, could not believe that all the belongings and personal effects he and his family had collected over the years had been destroyed by one rocket. "The damage is immeasurable," he said. "You can't even begin to estimate it."

Israel Transport Yisrael Katz vowed no Israelis would remain stranded abroad. "This decision is not proper and is a surrender to terrorism," Katz said. "Contacts are being made at all government and professional levels to change this decision, which has understandably impacted on European companies as well."

When asked by Israel National News how Israel was seeking to reassure foreign airlines that it was indeed safe to fly into Israel, Katz said that both the Iron Dome missile defense system and Ben Gurion airport's own security arrangements - both inside the airport itself and for aircraft - meant that there really is no reason to fear. He vowed that not a single Israeli would remain stranded abroad, and insisted that the cancellation decisions would not prevent the IDF from completing its mission in the Gaza Strip. "We are giving breathing space for the IDF to carry out its work in Gaza."

"The success of Hamas in closing Israeli airspace is a great victory for the resistance, and is the crown of Israel's failure," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.

The Israeli Airports Authority meanwhile announced Wednesday it would open the Ovda military airport, 35 miles (60 kilometers) north of Israel's Red Sea resort of Eilat, as an alternative to Ben Gurion.

Gaza fighting raged on Wednesday, displacing thousands more Palestinians in the battered territory as Secretary of State John Kerry said indirect truce talks between Israel and Hamas had made some progress.

Adding to pressure on Israel, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said there was "a strong possibility'' that it was committing war crimes in Gaza, where 668 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting. Israel denied the suggestion, stepping up the war of words and accusing Hamas of using fellow Gazans as human shields.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said the U.N. rights council was an "anti-Israel'' body. "Israel is acting according to international law. It is acting against terrorism. It is regrettable civilians are killed, but when we call on them to vacate and Hamas calls on them to stay, then that is what happens,'' she told Israel Radio.

Hamas and a smaller Gaza faction, Islamic Jihad, said they killed several Israeli soldiers in two separate ambushes on Wednesday. Israel had no immediate comment on those claims. Some 29 troops have been confirmed killed so far in the conflagration. Three civilians have died in rocket attacks out of Gaza, including a foreign laborer hit on Wednesday. He was injured by mortar fire from Gaza Wednesday while working in a greenhouse in a southern town. He was taken to Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon where he died of his wounds.

The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has captured him, but has not released a picture of him in their hands.

Palestinian medics said two worshippers were killed and 30 wounded in an attack on a mosque in the heart of the densely populated Zeitoun neighborhood in eastern Gaza City. In southern Abassan and Khuzaa villages, residents said they were besieged by Israeli snipers who wounded two Palestinians as they tried to emerge from hiding with white flags in hand. Israeli tanks fired shells near ambulances, discouraging their approach to recover casualties, witnesses said.

In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main Palestinian point person for any Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.

These demands include the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters recently arrested in the nearby West Bank and an end to the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has stymied the economy and made it near impossible for anyone to travel abroad.

Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in Gaza, which has been rocked by regular bouts of violence since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the territory in 2005. Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, balked at Cairo's original, barebones offer. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.

Egyptian sources said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal. Unlike Hamas, Abbas and his Western-backed PLO have pursued peacemaking with Israel for two decades.

Senior IDF commanders said Wednesday July 23 that the time had come for a decisive war move. Breaking up the Hamas' subterranean tunnels would take weeks, they said, but the critical encounter for completing their military mission and bringing the war to a close was still to be fought after three key IDF victories: The battle for Shijaiyah grabbed the headlines, but the confrontations in eastern Rafah and eastern Khan Younes in the south were just as important.

The commanders are now urging a large-scale assault on the bunker complex housing Hamas' top military command and infrastructure. They say it is up to national leaders, i.e., the security cabinet, to determine the military's next move and the disposition of the forces present on the battlefields of the Gaza Strip. The tank units could undertake the opening moves for the next, critical stage of the Israeli operation at no more than hours' notice.

Western diplomats and Palestinian Authority officials who met Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal in Qatar Sunday were amazed to hear him assert that Hamas was winning the war against the IDF and confident of being able to keep going for a long time, DEBKAfile's military and intelligence sources report.

On Monday, July 21, Meshaal told one Western official: "In Gaza we see that the IDF is slow and clumsy. Our forces are mobile and flexible, including our rockets which we can move quickly from one place to another." Asked about Hamas' defeat in Shijaiyah, where a Gaza City suburb, home to 100,000 Palestinians, was razed to the ground, he declined to comment.

After Israel learned of Meshaal's comments, the IDF was instructed Monday night to demolish the empty home of Mohammed Deif, head of Hamas military wing. Israeli war planners believe Deif is the brain behind Hamas' war, along with Izz-e- din al Qassam Brigades commander Marwan Issa.

DEBKAfile's military sources note that Hamas' success in disrupting civilian air traffic to and from Israel exposed a hidden side of its war on Israel. Most of the nearly 2,000 rockets fired over the last 16 days did not miss Israel's urban centers by chance, although many were deflected by Iron Dome interceptors. Hamas was focusing on strategic targets, such Israeli Air Force bases and facilities in the south and center. When IDF communiqués report that rockets land in open areas, this does not necessarily rule out their explosion in or near military bases.

30,000 Attend Funeral of American Lone Soldier


About 30,000 people attended the funeral of Sergeant Max Steinberg Wednesday. Max was a "lone soldier" who made aliyah on his own. He served in the Golani Brigade and was killed in Gaza. Most of the participants in the funeral did not know Max. They were citizens who decided to honor him for his sacrifice, following requests to do so which circulated in the media.

He was eulogized by a friend who said: "I remember your smile, and instead of crying, I laugh. You are a legend. I have lost a brother and a dear friend." His sister said: "You are a hero for thousands of Jews today."

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said: "Over 30,000 people came to give you the honor of a hero. The strength of the Jewish people lies in people like you. This week, we buried soldiers from Morocco, Russia and Ethiopia here. Soldiers who fought for the Jewish nation. We will never forget the soldiers who are buried here at Har Herzl, which overlooks our capital, Jerusalem."

MK Dov Lipman, himself an oleh (immigrant) from the US, read out the following eulogy: "What could motivate a young American to leave the comforts and security of a loving home with a more familiar future ahead of him, to move to a land where he had no family, no friends, could not speak the language, was in greater danger, and had an uncertain future?

"Max made his decision to move back to Israel while on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2012, specifically while standing here, on this mountain, when he came across the grave of a fallen soldier who came from American to fight in the IDF. What sparked inside of Max when he had that experience?

"I think the answer can be found in words that Max's mother related to the press in the United States – 'He felt that if this was his calling, that being on the sidelines, or even in the backseat, was just not going to work,' – Max heeded the call of Moses as we read in this past week's Torah portion: 'Will your brothers go to war while you remain here?'

"And to understand this decision one step deeper, we need to look no further back than the last words which Max shared with his mother: "He reached her at 4 a.m. – early Saturday morning – after coming out of Gaza for a brief refreshing break – and he said, 'Mom I'm not scared at all for me, I'm scared for you. I'm fine, I'm going back in.'

"Those last words say it all – concern for his mother but not for himself. Worry for his beloved state, but not for himself. Fear for the wellbeing of his Jewish brothers and sisters, but not for his own. This describes the ultimate giver – the person who doesn't ask what most people ask – what can I do for myself – but the person who asks what he can do for others, even if that means personal risk and harm.

"Evelyn and Stuart – your son is a Jewish and Israeli hero. Jake and Paige – your brother is a Jewish and Israeli hero. He is a hero on two levels. His first level of heroism is the fact that he saved lives – plain and simple. Max fought to make sure that missiles will not keep falling in our cities, and to destroy the tunnels of terror from Gaza. Max fought so that our children can have hope to live the way he himself was raised – without having to run to shelters because of air raid sirens and without the fear that terrorists may tunnel their way into their neighborhoods to kill them or kidnap them.

"Mr. and Mrs. Steinberg, Jake and Paige – it is true – today we join you in mourning the fact that you won't dance with Max at his wedding, that you won't see Max as a father, and that you won't see where is free spirit would have taken him. But your son, your heroic son, gave his life to save the lives of many others – of thousands of others. Your child and brother made a decision that there are things worth dying for and he died for them – thereby helping millions of Israelis live in peace and quiet.

"And this leads to the second level of Max's heroism. Max Steinberg, is the newly found hero to hundreds of thousands of young Israelis, and to millions of young Jews around the world. Max is causing young people to refocus on what is important in life. Look around you. Look at the masses of people who have come to pay respect to their new hero.

"Max has helped to rekindle the Zionistic spirit which gave birth to this state, and has reminded all of us of the blessing from God, the special merit that we have to live as a free people in our land – as well as the sacrifices we must make to maintain this reality. It is my hope and prayer that this realization provides you with some level of comfort. You raised a hero. And your brother was a hero. I hope you feel the collective hug of the people of Israel and know that we will always be here to embrace you and to support you in any way that we can.

"Max – now it is time to say goodbye – but before we do so I turn to you as a representative of Knesset, and on behalf of the citizens of Israel and Jews around the world to say thank you. Thank you for protecting our children, thank you for protecting our state, thank you for protecting the Jewish people, and thank you for showing us that a regular American boy from California can raise himself to the level of Jewish and Israeli hero.

"Max, all of us will try to continue your legacy – and every day ask ourselves as you did – what did we do for our state, what did we do for our nation and what did we do to make the world a better place. Rest in peace my brother who I never met. May your memory serve as a blessing and an inspiration for us all."

The funeral at Har Herzl was delayed by 30 minutes to enable the masses of people to reach the cemetery. Police blocked Sderot Herzl to vehicular traffic and the light rail beefed up its shuttle service from the Teddy Stadium parking lot.

Operation – 'Tsuk Eitan': The Lonely Soldier, the 'Sabra' Friendship

By Tzvi Szajnbrum, Attorney at Law (Commentary)

Lonely: People feel lonely for a number of reasons, including simple social awkwardness and intentional isolation, or because they are physically far from their family and friends.

Lonely Soldiers: It is true: There were thousands of lone soldiers in Israel, but the "law" has changed with the latest military operation "Tsuk Eitan." No soldier is lonely anymore – we have a great opportunity to erase this sad idea of "Lone Soldier." It is time we, the Israelis start to adopt every soldier who is considered "lonely."

We, the Israelis, are right now showing these young soldiers what we can do for them but we must find a way to do for them all year around - and not only during hard times like today. It is possible to adopt a soldier all year around, show them warmth, love and even give them a helping hand when they need one – a monetary and a physical hand.

A personal touch: In 1978 I became a lone soldier and let me tell you something: I was economically "lonely", but socially I had a lot of friends from the IDF and from the community in Jerusalem and Be'er Sheva where I lived. In Be'er Sheva I was "adopted" by many families, more than I could visit every time I came home.

Let's make a change, we can do it. Let's make the idea of a lone soldier become only a classification that these soldiers are given in the IDF for the purpose of enhanced benefits. It is fine that they receive special and extra monetary help from the IDF, but "lonely" they don't have to be anymore. It is up to us, every one of us.

While rockets rained down on Israel from Hamas, another full flight of new olim arrived home on Tuesday. I want to thank you again and again – I look around and I see real heroes in each one of the new and old immigrants - for showing strength and fearlessness and dedication to be here in Israel at this time.

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