When the Federal Aviation Administration announced a ban Tuesday on U.S. carriers flying to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, prompting a slew of similar decisions by European carriers, the flight cancellations were more than just a major inconvenience to thousands of passengers on 160-plus canceled flights.
They were a distressing reality check to a country that prides itself on being an island of normalcy in a sea of chaos.
Israelis and visitors alike often talk about how Israel is wrongly perceived as a war zone. Yes, the surrounding region is a mess, full of unstable and repressive autocracies where violence – often perpetrated by the government against its people — is de rigueur. But Israel is a stable Western democracy, closer to Europe in mentality, economy and culture than to its neighbors to the north, east and south. It’s a normal country with normal people leading normal lives.
The moment the airlines decided Tel Aviv was too dangerous to fly in and out of gave the lie to that argument, dealing a serious blow not just to Israel’s image overseas, but to the way Israelis look at themselves and their country (though a lot of them believe the airlines are grossly overreacting).
The cancellations came on Tuesday, not long after a rocket fired from Gaza struck and destroyed a home in Yehud, a town about a mile from the runways of Ben Gurion. Taking place just days after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, airlines are understandably jittery about flying over or into conflict zones. The Malaysia flight appears to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired amid fighting between Russian-backed militants and the Ukrainian military.
But Israel doesn’t want to be lumped in with Ukraine or Syria or Iraq. It wants to be part of the West. And if you look at the country’s economy, government and culture, for the most part it is.
But, damn it, there’s this war going on, and it’s getting harder and harder to ignore. One of Hamas’ aims in the war is to disrupt Israeli life and do as much damage as possible to Israel. It’s why rocket crews in Gaza have fired more than 2,100 rockets at Israel since the conflict began on July 8.
While only two people have been killed from those rockets, the disruption of travel into the country represents a real victory for Hamas, as Israeli officials and Israel supporters have pointed out in arguing for the quick resumption of flights.
“The flight restrictions are a mistake that hand Hamas an undeserved victory and should be lifted immediately,” Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor, said in a statement Tuesday night announcing that he was on his way to board a Tel Aviv-bound El Al flight to demonstrate how safe it is to fly to Israel.
It’s hard at this point to measure the economic damage Israel will suffer as a result of this war. But the flight cancellations send a signal to the world – including potential tourists and businesspeople – that Israel is a dangerous place to be.
Then there’s the psychological component to consider.
As JTA’s Ben Sales notes in his story Wednesday from Ben Gurion Airport, “Many Israelis consider international travel a vital escape valve to living in a small and often tense country — even when there are no wars happening.”
The cancellations threaten to close that valve and leave Israelis with a greater sense of isolation.
During the height of the second intifada, amid the bombings of Israeli buses, cafes and nightclubs, Israelis began to lament another kind of “pigua,” the Hebrew word used in Israel to describe terrorist attacks. The word pigua is not a precise translation of “attack” — that would be “hatkafa” — but a variant on the word “wound.”
When rock groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers canceled their performances in Israel due to the violence (despite entreaties by President Clinton), Israelis began complaining of cultural piguas.
The decision Tuesday by a slew of airlines to cancel 160 flights to and from Israel isn’t just an economic pigua. It’s a psychological pigua.
How long the flight ban will last – and how deep those psychological scars will be – remains to be seen.