Foreign airlines have suspended flights into Israel following Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas’ surprise attack, but Tel Aviv’s largest airport Ben Gurion remains open as Israeli carriers run emergency flights for citizens abroad.

Yesterday evening (8 October), the Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, targeted Ben Gurion with a missile attack, claiming responsibility on Telegram. Unverified social media footage shows further strikes today (9 October).

Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades said on Telegram: “The Al-Qassam Brigades bombed the Zionist Ben Gurion Airport with a missile barrage in response to the continuing crimes and targeting of civilian homes.”

Arkia Airlines and IsraAir have announced emergency flights to return Israelis abroad to Tel Aviv. El-Al, the country’s flag carrier airline, said it “might cancel flights to places where we don’t have a lot of Israelis to help other Israelis in other places.”

John Grant, Senior Aviation Analyst at OAG, forecasted this will cause a “significant and damaging loss on the [El-Al] airline for some time ahead”.

More than 700 people in Israel and 400 in Gaza have been killed as air strikes and military operations escalate. Thousands more have been injured, and hundreds reportedly taken hostage.

Will Israel suspend air travel?

The Israel Airports Authority (IAA) insists that Ben Gurion airport remains open.

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Dozens of flights have been cancelled as thousands flock to Tel Aviv’s international hub in an attempt to flee the country, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declares is “at war” with Palestine.

Questions have been raised over how long the IAA can safely keep Ben Gurion airport open as Hamas launches repeated strikes.

The airport’s closure will only be avoided “as long as the airport authorities can operate the airport safely and without risk to passengers, airlines, employees and aircraft”, said Grant. “This is unlikely to be very long, if at all.”

Earlier today (9 October), Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip. Israel controls Gaza’s air space and border crossings and has already cut electricity, fuel and food supply lines.

60,000 passengers passed through Ben Gurion airport yesterday (8 October). The IAA announced that only Terminal 3 is operating while Terminal 1 is temporarily closed.

United Airlines, Emirates, Ryanair, Lufthansa, Air France and American Airlines are among the foreign carriers that have suspended flights into Israel indefinitely.

Border closures or religious rights?

The government’s continued offer of emergency flights for Israelis abroad is motivated in part by the ‘Law of Return’. Also known as the Right of Aliyah, this law gives “every Jew in the world the right to settle in Israel” and has been enshrined in Israel’s constitution since 1950.

The Israeli government is attempting to counterbalance this religious right with national security interests.

“Israel declaring a national state of emergency means borders could close at very short notice,” said Nicholas Wyatt, Head of Analysis for GlobalData Travel and Tourism. “This, along with the obvious safety concerns, will deter many travellers.”

Wyatt pointed to foreign governments’ travel advisory warnings as another factor behind cancellations.

“The UK is advising against all but essential travel to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, while the US has issued a ‘Do not travel to’ advisory for Gaza, and an ‘exercise increased caution’ advisory for Israel”, he said.

“In the past, most travellers have taken heed of such advisories.”

Qatar’s foreign ministry is reportedly attempting to serve as mediator in talks between Hamas and Israeli officials.

All eyes now look to the Israeli security forces’ decision on international air travel amid what Tel-Aviv’s ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan has called “Israel’s 9/11”.

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