British Airways, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic have suspended all flights between the UK and Tel Aviv in Israel, as countries around the world scramble to evacuate citizens amid the mounting crisis.
BA earlier had to divert a flight to Tel Aviv back to the UK because of security concerns, and said it took the decision after “the latest assessment of the situation”.
The move was influenced by the fact that sirens warning of a potential attack on Tel Aviv were going off as the diverted flight was approaching the Israeli city, which has been targeted by missiles fired from the Gaza Strip.
The development came as Britain’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, was filmed scrambling for cover in a bunker as sirens sounded while he visited southern Israel.
While other countries have been putting on flights to repatriate citizens and dependents, there was an expectation that the UK government would continue to rely on commercial flights for as long as that provided an effective method of providing an air route for those who wanted to leave.
Another airline serving Israel and the UK, Wizz Air, had earlier suspended operations before BA. El Al, the Israeli flag carrier, was still operating services.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “The safety of our customers and our teams is our number one priority, always. After careful consideration, based on latest information, we have taken the decision to pause flying to and from Tel Aviv for the next 72 hours.
“As the dynamic situation evolves, we’ll keep our flying programme under constant review. Our teams will be in contact with any affected customers to discuss their options, which include rebooking to a later date or a full refund. We would advise anyone booked to travel to check their flight status on the website before travelling to the airport.”
Alicia Kearns, the chair of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said UK had tended to rely on commercial flights, where they are possible, in terms of repatriation of citizens in situations such as those wishing to leave Israel.
“It’s not straightforward. What is different is that many people will be dual nationals, some are also in the Israeli Defense Forces and will be staying. I anticipate that as long as there are commercial flights the Foreign Office won’t be putting other flights on.
“I am gravely worried about British nationals in Gaza because of the deeply grave humanitarian situation there and risk of being killed. There are people who cannot get out, there are major challenges in terms of what crossing points could be used and there will be British doctors and others trapped in Gaza under bombardment.”
Cleverly made the trip to “demonstrate the UK’s unwavering solidarity with the Israeli people following Hamas’s terrorist attacks”, said the Foreign Office, after confirming that he had arrived and would be meeting with survivors of the Hamas attack on Israel.
“I’m here in Israel today to show that the UK’s support for the Israeli people is unwavering,” Cleverly said in a tweet, which showed him meeting a tearful Israeli woman.
The Israeli government has stopped the passage of food, water, fuel and medicine into Gaza, with the sole remaining access from Egypt shut down on Tuesday after air strikes near the border crossing.
Families and friends of British citizens and residents currently trapped in Gaza have meanwhile signed an open letter to Cleverly asking the UK government to do everything in its power to orchestrate safe passage for them to return home
“We kindly request that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take immediate action to arrange with the Egyptian authorities to reopen the border with Gaza and facilitate the safe passage of British Gazans and their families out of the conflict zone. This is a matter of utmost urgency, as innocent lives are at risk,” added the letter, whose signatories included members of the British Jewish community, academics and the MP John McDonnell. It was organised by Keren Weitzberg, a London politics professor, whose friend is stuck in Gaza after making a trip to visit family with her baby.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International’s UK’s chief executive, said: “It’s entirely right that James Cleverly is offering his support to Israeli civilians who’ve suffered in these completely appalling attacks.”
He added: “Mr Cleverly should be urging all parties to the conflict, including the Israeli authorities, to respect international humanitarian law.”
Concerns remain for the safety of British citizens in the region, as the BBC reported that 17 UK nationals are either dead or missing, including children.
Source : The Guardian