Can Hamas rockets threaten Ben-Gurion Airport flights?

Much of the answer depends on what one’s threshold is for what constitutes a “threat.”

December 25, 2018 20:53
4 minute read.
Can Hamas rockets threaten Ben-Gurion Airport flights?

Palestinian members of al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, display home-made rockets during an anti-Israel military parade, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip August 21, 2016. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)


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There is no easy answer to the question of whether Hamas rockets can viably threaten flights at Ben-Gurion Airport as they publicly sought to do last month.

Following threats to fire rockets at Ben-Gurion last month, the Israeli Airports Authority adjusted flight routes for incoming flights.
Much of the answer depends on what one’s threshold is for what constitutes a “threat.”

Also key is if the question is whether rockets can hit aircraft or whether the threat can project a serious enough risk getting foreign aviation authorities to halt flights to Israel.

According to a Begin-Sadat Center of Bar-Ilan University report by former IDF intelligence Lt.-Col. (res.) Raphael Bouchnik-Chen, the likelihood of Hamas rockets – which are still mostly primitive – “is more a propaganda message than a concrete threat.”

He makes several arguments in support of that contention.

Bouchnik-Chen acknowledges that Hamas possesses rockets with a range of more than 70 kilometers which could reach Ben-Gurion, and that in 2014, one of its thousands of rockets hit Yahud, a mile from the airport.

However, he says that the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other such authorities have a double standard for Israel.

BASED ON the ICAO’s own guidance from its Conflict Zones Risk Information report and 2015 clarifications, the three threats posed to civil aviation operations near conflict zones are surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), man-portable air defense systems and air-to-air attacks.

Noting that, “There is not a single word about rockets or ballistic missiles,” he argues that this means that any warnings of flying through conflict zones because of Hamas rockets should be viewed with suspicion and as potentially having political undertones.

The political undertones which Bouchnik-Chen is referring to are theories held by a sizable number of Israeli authorities that part of the FAA’s 2014 decision to briefly suspend flights to Ben-Gurion was an attempt to pressure Israel into a premature ceasefire with Hamas.

In addition, he offers Saudi Arabia as an example: “When ballistic missile barrages were launched on an almost daily basis by the Yemenite Houthi rebels towards several Saudi main flight prohibitions were even considered.”

Backing up this double-standard idea, he writes that following the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 by Russia, a senior ICAO official admitted that “different political perspectives” among member states have rendered the organization “unable to provide a common global assessment of risk for aviation operations.”

In other words, argues Bouchnik-Chen, the ICAO’s warnings cross into the political sphere and are not merely security based.

He cited former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, US Senator Ted Cruz and Israeli officials who all questioned the credibility of canceling flights to Ben-Gurion Airport for security reasons.

TOP FORMER defense ministry missile-defense expert and Jerusalem Institute of Security Studies fellow Uzi Rubin, while sympathetic to some of Bouchnik-Chen’s ideas, approached the issue differently. He told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that the relevant question is not whether Hamas rockets can hit civilian aircraft coming into Ben-Gurion, but whether the FAA, ICAO and others will issue warnings.

Rubin also thought that there were questions about the mix of Obama administration considerations for why the FAA issued a no-flight directive for Ben-Gurion during the 2014 Gaza war.

But he said that even without politics, it is understandable for a bureaucrat running the FAA to put safety or even the perception of safety first.

Though for Israel, losing flights even temporarily to Ben-Gurion is a major economic and psychological negative, the harm for aviation bureaucrats of losing flights to one location for a short period is nothing compared to risking the safety of those flights, however low the risk may be, Rubin said.

Going forward, Rubin said that even though Iron Dome has performed remarkably, Hamas is not static, and it could not be assumed that missile defense would be hermetic.

Rather, he said that even last month, when Israel and Hamas were close to war on November 12-13, Hamas had managed to outfox Iron Dome somewhat more than in 2014.

This meant, said Rubin, that even if Hamas’s chances of hitting an aircraft or the airport were low, they could not just be summarily dismissed.

Also, he disputed the comparison to the Saudi case, saying that there were eight relevant instances of rocket attacks toward Saudi airports and Riyadh has insisted that none of them landed near or really threatened the airports.

Acknowledging that some analysts have argued that Saudi denials of threats to their airports are false, Rubin said that it was still not as serious as where Israel publicly admitted that a rocket hit one mile from the airport.

In the meantime, even as Hamas failed to get close to Ben-Gurion in 2014, the debate will probably be rekindled whenever the next conflict explodes.

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