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U.S., European airlines halt flights to Israel due to instability

By Karen Jacobs

(Reuters) - Air carriers in the United States and Europe on Tuesday halted flights to Tel Aviv after warnings from governmental agencies in an effort to ensure passenger safety as turmoil in Israel and the region intensified.

U.S. carriers Delta Air Lines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines were the first to announce cancellations until further notice, followed by flight stoppages by European carriers, including Germany's Lufthansa and Air France.

American Airlines said late on Tuesday that it would halt flights to and from Tel Aviv through Thursday while it monitors the situation.

Air Berlin, Germany's second-largest carrier, also said it halted its flights through Wednesday, citing the situation on the ground. Throughout the day, several airlines rerouted or turned back flights already headed to Israel's financial center.

The flight suspensions grabbed the attention of a global aviation community still grappling with the downing last week of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine with nearly 300 aboard.

"The carriers are making the right call," said Robert Mann, an airline consultant in Port Washington, New York. "They are ultimately legally responsible for their operations and thus, they have to be at least as cautious and in many cases more cautious than any guideline that they are given."

The FAA said it told U.S. carriers that they were prohibited from flying to or from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for up to 24 hours. In a statement, the agency said its notice was issued in response to a rocket strike on Tuesday that landed about a mile from the airport.

The text of the FAA notice cited "the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza" in prohibiting the flights by U.S. carriers.

Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called for U.S. airlines to resume flights to Israel. "There is no need for U.S. carriers to suspend flights and reward terrorism," said a statement from Israel's Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. The FAA notice was discussed in a call later on Tuesday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the U.S. State Department said.

"The only consideration in issuing the notice was the safety and security of our citizens," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. "The FAA continues to monitor and evaluate the situation, and will issue updated guidelines no later than 24 hours from the time the (notice) went into force."

Asked about reports that Netanyahu had asked the FAA to rescind the order, a senior Obama administration official said he was not aware of the request, but added: "We're not going to overrule the FAA, period."

"If the FAA says this crosses our tripwires, we're not going to say 'Don't warn civil aviation.' We understand Israeli concerns. They don't want to have a shutdown of air traffic into Ben Gurion. We can look at this every 24 hours, but (when) a rocket lands a mile from that airport, that kind of trips their wire."

EUROPEAN CAUTION

Europe's aviation regulator also warned airlines not to fly to Tel Aviv. A spokesman said the European Aviation Safety Agency would issue a bulletin by Wednesday containing a "strong recommendation" that airlines avoid Ben Gurion Airport.

"The recommendation applies to all European airlines," the spokesman said in an email.

Many airlines were allowing customers affected by the cancellations to change their travel plans without penalty.

The flight cancellations came after Hamas, the militant group that dominates in the Gaza Strip, and its allies fired more rockets into Israel on Tuesday. One hit a town on the fringes of Ben Gurion airport, lightly injuring two people, officials said.

Israel launched an offensive earlier in July to halt missile salvoes out of Gaza by Hamas, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the occupied West Bank as well as economic hardship due to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs in Atlanta, Tim Hepher in Paris, Steven Scheer in Tel Aviv, Victoria Bryan in Berlin, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Steve Holland and Peter Cooney in Washington; editing by G Crosse and Ron Popeski)

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