Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel Wednesday in spite of a short-lived US flight ban amid the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip, for a lightning trip to offer the country support amid growing international frustration over the violence.
Bloomberg arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Israel's national carrier El Al, where he was met by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He left later Wednesday night.
The Federal Aviation Administration renewed a flight ban to Israel on Wednesday, following decisions by US and European airlines to suspend flights there Tuesday over fears about incoming Hamas rocket fire on Israel. The ban was lifted late Wednesday night, though some carriers have said they will review security arrangements before deciding to renew flights.
The FAA ban did not apply to El Al as a foreign carrier. The European Aviation Safety Agency late Tuesday said it "strongly recommends" that airlines refrain from operating flights to and from Tel Aviv.
"Halting flights here — when the airport is safe — hurts Israel and rewards Hamas for attacking Israel. Hamas wants to shut down the airport. We can't let that happen," Bloomberg said after arriving. He said the US decision was "an overreaction" and said Israel has the right to defend itself.
Israel insists the airport is secure, crediting its missile defense system known as Iron Dome which has intercepted a large percentage of rockets fired from Gaza at populated areas. Tuesday's rocket was the first to land in the vicinity of the airport since the start of the two-week long war. Netanyahu told Bloomberg the FAA decision "gives Hamas's terror a prize."
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in a bid to force Gaza's Hamas rulers to halt the incessant rocket fire. The military says more than 2,000 rockets have been fired since the start of the campaign July 8. The Israeli military says it has struck more than 3,000 sites in Gaza. The fighting so far has killed more than 680 Palestinians, officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip say, and 34 Israelis.
The Israeli ground offensive has focused on a network of tunnels Hamas dug under the border with Israel. Hamas terrorists have penetrated into Israel through at least five such tunnels in recent days, sparking deadly clashes with Israeli troops on the Israeli side of the border. Israeli military officials say Hamas sought to attack kibbutzim and moshavim in the area, and that some of the tunnels run directly beneath homes and residential areas. Netanyahu said Sunday that such attacks could have had "catastrophic" consequences for Israel. Six IDF soldiers have been killed by Hamas gunmen surfacing from such tunnels during Operation Protective Edge. Some 20 terrorists were killed by IDF forces shortly after emerging from the tunnels during the incidents.
Before leaving, Bloomberg and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat made a condolence call to the family of Sergeant Max Steinberg, a volunteer soldier from Los Angeles, California, who was killed during fighting in Gaza this weekend and was buried in Jerusalem Wednesday.
Steinberg's parents visited Israel for the first time to bury their son, who moved to Israel alone and served in the Golani Brigade.
"Mike's arrival in Israel and Jerusalem sends a message to the world that justice and morality are on our side in this battle for the safety and security of Israeli residents," Barkat said in a statement, referring to Bloomberg.
"Mike's support gives strength to the soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force as they carry out their mission to defend the State of Israel. We hope that our soldiers will complete their mission quickly and return home safely."
Bloomberg, who served as New York City's mayor from 2002 to 2013, received Israel's $1 million Genesis Prize — dubbed the "Jewish Nobel" — in May.