Ban of flights to and from Israel feared to bolster Hamas

| Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 9:57 p.m.

JERUSALEM — A missing Israeli soldier and the cancellation of international flights to and from Israel on Tuesday could aid Hamas, potentially shifting the dynamics of diplomatic efforts to bring about a cease-fire in the two-week-old Gaza Strip conflict.

If Hamas is holding the 21-year-old soldier, whom Israel on Tuesday identified as Sgt. Oron Shaul, or his remains, it could give the Palestinian militant group leverage for its political demands — or it could incite Israel to push deeper into the coastal enclave.

The suspension of flights by all American and some major European carriers reflected the group's ability to affect Israel's economy with its rockets, one of which struck within a mile of the international airport near Tel Aviv on Tuesday, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration's flight ban.

By night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had phoned Secretary of State John Kerry to appeal for a resumption of American-based flights to Israel, underscoring fears here that the country might be labeled a war zone and suffer damage to its tourism, high-tech and investment sectors. A State Department statement said the ban was meant only to protect citizens, in an apparent effort to prevent the measure from being viewed as U.S. pressure on Israel to agree to Hamas demands.

But despite a diplomatic push by Kerry and other world leaders, there was no trace of progress toward reviving an Egyptian truce proposal rejected by Hamas a week ago or amending it to make it more attractive to Hamas, as the United States is quietly urging. Israel accepted the proposal, but Hamas said it met none of the group's demands.

Those demands, Hamas leaders conveyed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday in Doha, Qatar, include the end of Israel's naval blockade of Gaza and the release of several hundred Hamas prisoners.

“We are continuing to work, and there is more work to be done,” Kerry said after meetings at Egypt's presidential palace.

The Palestinian death toll had risen to more than 630 since the conflict erupted on July 8, according to officials with the Gaza health ministry, with more than half the deaths occurring since Israel began its ground incursion on Thursday night. The United Nations says more than 70 percent of the casualties are civilians, including children. Israel says it has killed as many as 180 militants.

Overnight, Israel's military announced that two more Israeli soldiers had been killed on Monday, bringing the Israeli armed forces' death toll to 27 since Thursday — the largest number of Israeli troop deaths since the 2006 war with Lebanon. Two Israeli civilians have been killed by Hamas mortar and rocket attacks into Israel.

Israel continued to pound Hamas targets in Gaza with airstrikes and from naval vessels off the coast, while Hamas sent a steady barrage of rockets into Israel. One projectile struck a house in Yehud, in central Israel near Ben Gurion International.

The attack injured one person, but it persuaded the FAA to ban U.S. flights to and from Ben Gurion for a 24-hour period starting Tuesday afternoon. Airlines including Delta, US Airways, United, Air France and Lufthansa suspended their Israel flights.

A senior Israeli military official, speaking to journalists in Tel Aviv, suggested that there was a possibility that Shaul, the missing soldier, could have been captured alive by Hamas or another militant faction in Gaza.

Shaul was one of seven Israelis inside an aging armored personnel carrier pushing Sunday into the Shijaiyah enclave of East Gaza, a Hamas stronghold peppered with some of the tunnel networks that Israel says it entered Gaza to destroy.

Hamas militants struck the vehicle with an anti-tank missile. The bodies of the soldiers were burned beyond recognition, and tests identified only six of the seven soldiers inside, the military said. “No parts of his (Shaul's) body have been found among the ruins of the APC,” the senior Israeli military official said.

A Hamas spokesman said that a soldier named Shaul Aron is “a prisoner now.”

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