Over the course of a single day, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas ensured that its latest escalation with Israel will not be resolved any time soon.
On Monday, Hamas fighters entered Israel through an infiltration tunnel, killing four soldiers inside Israeli territory. Hours later, a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Ben Gurion International Airport — triggering a 24-hour suspension of American flights to the country that Hamas called “a great victory.”
The 24-hour ban was extended earlier today.
Ben Gurion’s closure to American air traffic is the realisation of a long-held Israeli fear — one that the country’s officials frequently raised in meetings with their U.S. counterparts in the years after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. According to the Wikileaks cables, in a January 2006 meeting with American officials, a deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council argued against a unilateral drawdown in the West Bank, saying, “If Israel were to withdraw now, Qassam rockets would find their way into the West Bank and would be launched against strategic targets like Ben Gurion Airport.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then the head of the Likud party faction in the Knesset, worried during a December 2008 meeting with U.S. members of Congress that “an Israeli pullout from the West Bank would put Iranian proxies in rocket range of Ben Gurion Airport.”
In the late 2000s, Israeli anxieties over Ben Gurion somewhat different than they are today. In the cables, the Israelis worry over homemade Qassam rockets and mortars fired from the West Bank hills overlooking the airport, a potential danger in the event of an Israeli pullout from the formerly Jordanian-occupied territories that Israel seized during the 1967 Middle East War.
It would be years after these cables were written before Hamas had the Syrian and Iranian-produced long-range projectiles needed to hit the airport from Gaza.
So this week’s flight cancellations represent a certain loss of strategic depth for the Israelis: proof that its enemies can have a major disruptive effect on the country in ways that weren’t possible just a few years ago.
Yesterday’s halt in American air traffic proves that militant groups don’t need to be perched over Ben Gurion’s runways in order to render one of Israel’s most important pieces of infrastructure partly inoperable.
In practicality, there probably wasn’t much of an actual threat to planes entering and leaving the airport according to Steven Frischling, a blogger and aviation security analyst. Hamas isn’t firing surface-to-air missiles, but rockets with poor accuracy.
“It’s like standing at the end of the runway at Logan with a slingshot, or firing model rockets at LAX,” Frischling told Business Insider of Hamas’s capability to bring down a plane at Ben Gurion.
He adds that airlines could eliminate most risk by having their planes fly novel approach patterns that would be well within a trans-Atlantic commercial pilot’s abilities.
“If you fly in a spiral pattern it’s harder for a random rocket to hit you,” says Frischling, referring to the corkscrew-type approach sometimes used at particularly hazardous airports. “If you’re in the left seat of a triple-7, you know how to do it.”
This doesn’t mean that the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision was rooted in anything other than necessity, or a concern over the safety of U.S. air passengers. As Frischling notes, the shoot-down of MH17 has led to a sudden drop in public confidence in commercial aviation, and both governments and airlines are mindful of the costs of another crash.
From Israel’s perspective, this context doesn’t matter.
With capabilities that Israeli policymakers were barely contemplating just a few ago, Hamas has exposed a major vulnerability and demonstrated that they don’t even need to threaten the lives of air travellers to get Ben Gurion partly shut down. With enough perceived danger, and the right confluence of global events, they can do it with the arsenal they already have.
Hamas has crossed two major Israeli red lines over the course of a single 24-hour period. The Israelis almost certainly won’t agree to a ceasefire while there are American restrictions for Ben Gurion and Hamas possesses the ability to kill Israelis within their own territory — after weeks of fighting and the loss of dozens of soldiers, this would be viewed within Israel as a landmark capitulation.
And with both vital infrastructure and territory under threat, the Israelis no longer need a long-term strategic objective to have an imperative to keep fighting. For both sides, the stakes are now higher than they have ever been.
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