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Washington (AFP) — Major US, European and Canadian airlines cancelled flights to and from Israel on Tuesday after a rocket fired from Gaza struck near its main international airport in Tel Aviv.

The cancellations highlighted heightened worldwide fears of a rocket hitting a passenger jet in the wake of last week’s downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine with nearly 300 on board.

That incident underscored the vulnerability of commercial aircraft to surface-to-air missiles, even at cruising altitudes in excess of 30,000 feet.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned US airlines from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport for at least 24 hours, citing the ongoing crisis in Gaza.

Delta, US Airways, and United Airlines heeded the order, with Delta diverting a Tel Aviv-bound Boeing 747 with 273 passengers and 17 crew on board to Paris.

“Due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben Gurion International Airport by U.S. operators are prohibited until further advised,” said the FAA’s Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM.

“This NOTAM will be updated within 24 hours,” it added.

In an accompanying press statement, the FAA said it had immediately notified U.S. carriers when it learned of the rocket strike.

Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said it was likely that the flight ban could be extended beyond 24 hours.

Air France said it was canceling its Tel Aviv flights “until further notice.” Lufthansa said it was doing likewise, for 72 hours. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines suspended its services as well, citing “security reasons.”

Lufthansa explained that it was suspending its Tel Aviv service “for the security of passengers and crew” amid the “unstable situation” near the airport.

Air Canada also canceled service to and from Tel Aviv on Tuesday, and said on Twitter it would “continue to evaluate going forward & update.”

British Airways and its low-cost rival EasyJet, however, maintained their flights.

“We continue to operate as normal,” a British Airways spokesman said. “Safety and security are our highest priorities and we continue to monitor the situation closely.”

– Rocket strike –

Prompting the rush of cancellations was a rocket fired from Gaza which, according to Israeli police, struck north of the airport.

“A house was damaged in a rocket strike in the Kiryat Ono Yehud region, several kilometers from the airport,” police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP.

Delta said it had diverted the Tel Aviv-bound flight after “reports of a rocket or associated debris” near Ben Gurion airport.

“Delta, in coordination with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, is doing so to ensure the safety and security of our customers and employees,” it said in a statement.

US Airways meanwhile told AFP in a Twitter exchange it had canceled its flights Tuesday between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv “in response to security concerns” at the airport in Tel Aviv.

And United said: “We’re suspending operations to/from Tel Aviv until further notice. We’ll continue to evaluate the situation.”

United was more discreet on its website, where it said its two flights Tuesday to Tel Aviv from Newark airport outside New York had been “canceled due to aircraft availability.”

Delta, which links Tel Aviv with New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, said it was “working to reaccommodate” passengers on its Paris-diverted flight.

AFP Photo / Patrik Stollarz

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