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An Israeli Apache helicopter fires a missile towards the northern Gaza Strip July 22, 2014. Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, saying no ceasefire was near as top U.S. and U.N. diplomats pursued talks on halting fighting that has claimed more than 500 lives. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
An Israeli Apache helicopter fires a missile towards the northern Gaza Strip July 22, 2014. Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, saying no ceasefire was near as top U.S. and U.N. diplomats pursued talks on halting fighting that has claimed more than 500 lives. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

U.S., European airlines halt flights to Israel due to instability

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(Reuters) - Air carriers in the United States and Europe on Tuesday halted flights to Tel Aviv after warnings from governmental agencies in an effort to ensure passenger safety as turmoil in Israel and the region has intensified.

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U.S. carriers Delta Air Lines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines were the first to announce cancellations, followed by flight stoppages by European carriers, including Germany's Lufthansa and Air France.

Air Berlin, Germany's second-largest carrier, also said it halted its flights through Wednesday, citing the situation on the ground. Throughout the day, several airlines re-routed or turned back flights already headed to Israel's financial center.

The flight suspensions gripped the attention of a global aviation community that is still grappling with the downing last week of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine with nearly 300 aboard.

"The carriers are making the right call," said Robert Mann, an airline consultant in Port Washington, New York. "They are ultimately legally responsible for their operations and thus, they have to be at least as cautious and in many cases more cautious than any guideline that they are given."

The FAA said it told U.S. carriers that they were prohibited from flying to or from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv for up to 24 hours. In a statement, the agency said its notice was issued in response to a rocket strike on Tuesday which landed about a mile from the airport.

The text of the FAA notice cited "the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza" in prohibiting the flights by U.S. carriers.

Europe's aviation regulator also warned airlines not to fly to Tel Aviv. A spokesman said the European Aviation Safety Agency would issue a bulletin by Wednesday containing a "strong recommendation" that airlines avoid Ben Gurion Airport.

"The recommendation applies to all European airlines," the spokesman said in an email.

Many airlines were allowing customers affected by the cancellations to change their travel plans without penalty. The flight cancellations came after Hamas, the militant group that dominates in the Gaza Strip, and its allies fired more rockets into Israel on Tuesday. One hit a town on the fringes of Ben Gurion airport, lightly injuring two people, officials said.

However, Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called for U.S. airlines to resume flights to Israel.

"There is no need for U.S. carriers to suspend flights and reward terrorism," said a statement from Israel's Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.

Israel launched an offensive earlier in July to halt missile salvoes out of Gaza by Hamas, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the occupied West Bank as well as economic hardship due to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

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