The FAA decided Wednesday to extend its ban on commercial flights into Ben-Gurion Airport for an additional 24 hours as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel, citing progress in efforts to broker a truce to end more than two weeks of bloodshed in Gaza.
The flight ban began Tuesday after a Hamas rocket attack near Israel's main airport, and does not apply to military aircraft, according to the State Department. It marked the first time in two decades that major international flights were suspended to the airport.
On Wednesday, Air France and Germany's two largest airlines — Lufthansa and Air Berlin — also canceled more flights, after the European Aviation Safety Agency strongly recommended late Tuesday that airlines refrain from operating to and from Tel Aviv.
Other European airlines, including KLM, Alitalia and Scandinavian Airlines, canceled flights Tuesday and Wednesday, but did not immediately announce plans for Thursday. British Airways said it has not canceled its Tel Aviv flights and has no plans to do so. Israeli airlines El Al, Arkia and Israir continue to operate as normal.
The Israel Airport Authority recommended opening the Ovda Airport in the southern resort town Eilat, on Israel's Red Sea, as an alternative to Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, according to YnetNews. Eilat is 133 miles from Gaza, while Tel Aviv is 53 miles away.
The U.S. flight ban has sparked criticism for giving Hamas a temporary victory as the group has threatened to shut down the airport in the past.
On Tuesday, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz called on airlines and the FAA to reconsider, saying the ban would "hand terror a prize.'' He said civilian flights were protected by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system and the airport was safe.
Meanwhile, in his third day of talks with Mideast leaders, Kerry — who arrived in Tel Aviv on Wednesday morning on an Air Force jet — met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and was scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day.
"We certainly have made steps forward," Kerry said in Jerusalem, where he was meeting for the second time this week with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon. "There's still work to be done."
Abbas is backing Hamas' core conditions for a cease-fire, he announced Wednesday, in a bid to end more than two weeks of Israeli-Hamas hostilities that have left hundreds of Palestinians dead and thousands injured.
"Gaza's demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people, and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve," senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said. "We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our people are standing beside it to support it through all possible means until the invaders understand that our great people inside the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone."
Local residents echoed that stance, expressing growing support for Hamas. Gaza City resident Abu Yasser said that as more lives are claimed by Israeli rocket fire, the deeper his support for Hamas grows.
"Killing civilians and attacking our homes will not push us to blame Hamas," he said. "Although they were to blame for some problems in Gaza, we are all united behind the resistance now. All Israeli slogans about peace are a mirage – they have controlled our lives since they occupied Gaza 47 years ago, and now the siege must be lifted."
Israel says it began the Gaza operation to halt Hamas rocket fire on its territory and to destroy a network of tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel that are intended to allow Hamas militants to carry out attacks against Israelis.
Hamas also wants as part of a peace deal the release of prisoners re-arrested this year, after having been freed in 2011 in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Earlier efforts for an Egyptian-backed cease-fire failed last week because Hamas said it was not consulted over the terms of the deal. The group also did not trust Egypt to broker a truce after the nation overthrew former president Mohammed Morsi last year – Morsi belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is its Palestinian counterpart.
Since then, the death toll has skyrocketed on the Palestinian side as Israel launched a ground invasion. The death toll has reached 644 since July 8, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. At least 29 Israeli soldiers have died, the Israel Defense Forces say, as well as two Israeli civilians.
Yasser, who also holds a British passport, said despite the suffering, he is staying right where he is.
"I do not want to leave Gaza," he said. "I want to be with my family and die in Gaza."
The international community, looking on in increasing concern, is upping its efforts to stop the carnage.
U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called on Hamas and Israel to "strictly abide" by international humanitarian and human rights law.
"I reiterate my numerous calls for the blockade on Gaza to be lifted once and for all," Pillay said. "As we saw in 2009 and 2012 it is innocent civilians in Gaza who are suffering the most."
Contributing: William M. Welch, Bart Jansen; The Associated Press