FAA, reviewing Israeli measures, lifts flight ban

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on flights to Israel after reviewing Israeli measures to keep flights safe from rockets.

“Before making this decision, the FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel and carefully reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation,” the agency said in a statement just before midnight Wednesday, saying the ban was lifted effective immediately.

The agency had come under fire from the Israeli government, pro-Israel groups and a leading Republican senator for the ban instituted at noon Tuesday after a Hamas rocket landed in a town about a mile from Ben Gurion International Airport. The FAA statement appeared to allude to claims that the ban was a means of pressuring Israel into a cease-fire.

“The FAA’s primary mission and interest are the protection of people traveling on U.S. airlines,” the statement said. “The agency will continue to closely monitor the very fluid situation around Ben Gurion Airport and will take additional actions, as necessary.”

Early Wednesday, AIPAC had called the ban “harsh and excessive.”

“For the past two weeks, Israel has endured hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas terrorists from Gaza. Yet, air travel to Israel has been safe and unhindered,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement.

“Safety is an important consideration, but this decision appears overly harsh and excessive,” AIPAC said. “Moreover, we are concerned that it could have the unintended effect of encouraging terrorists to become even more committed to make civil aviation a target.”

The FAA announced its ban after a rocket hit Yehud, adjacent to the airport, and a number of commercial airlines suspended flights because of the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip on Israel since the latest Israel-Hamas conflict started on July 8. It extended the ban for another 24 hours on Wednesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said the ban is a “mistake” and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel to protest it. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also had objected to the ban.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Wednesday suggested the ban was politically motivated and a means to pressure Israel to accept the terms of a cease-fire being sought by Secretary of State John Kerry. Cruz pledged to block State Department nominees until the Obama administration answered his questions about the ban.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, called Cruz’s allegation “offensive and ridiculous.”

The FAA makes “these decisions based solely on the security and safety of American citizens,” she said.

In response, Cruz said, “The only thing ‘offensive’ about this situation is how the Obama Administration is spurning our allies to embolden our enemies; the only thing ‘ridiculous’ is the administration’s response to basic questions.”

Cruz in his releases did not present direct evidence that Kerry or Obama influenced the FAA, a regulatory agency. He asked why the Obama administration had not banned flights to Ukraine in the wake of a the downing earlier this month of a civilian airliner or to Afghanistan, Yemen or Pakistan, where guerrilla wars are being waged.

In fact, the FAA has banned flights over eastern Ukraine and imposed restrictions on air travel to Afghanistan and Yemen.

In a reply to a JTA query, Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz, did not address the anomalies, but said the ban was “unprecedented” and came just as Kerry announced $47 million in humanitarian assistance for the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is the controlling authority.

“We want this administration to answer who made this decision, where it came from,” Frazier said in an email.

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