Taking off and landing a huge commercial aircraft filled with hundreds of passengers is not an easy task for any pilot. Doing the same while rockets are flying overhead, that seems impossible and risky. Yet during Operation Protective Edge while Hamas fired rockets at Ben Gurion International Airport, Israeli forces managed to keep passenger air traffic safe.
Hamas declared that shutting down traffic at Ben Gurion International Airport was one of their top objectives during Operation Protective Edge. The terror organization fired tens of rockets towards Ben Gurion and sent out daily emails to international flight companies threatening to attack the airport. “Shutting down Ben Gurion would have been a huge achievement for Hamas,” explains Shmuel Zakai, the Director of Ben Gurion International Airport.
“It’s almost impossible to explain to people who live outside of Israel how you can maintain a normal and safe civilian flight environment in a reality where rockets are being fired at us,” Zakai continues. “No other airport in the developed world has to deal with this kind of threat. There is a terrorist organization openly declaring that its goal is to cut Israel off from the world by targeting the airport.”
So how did the Israeli Air Force keep rockets from hitting planes during Operation Protective Edge? The answer to that question lies in the IAF’s extremely advanced air surveillance methods and the Iron Dome missile defense system.
First, specific fly routes were designated for commercial aircraft, keeping them safe from the reach of Hamas rockets. Meanwhile, the Iron Dome protected the airport building and the planes on the ground. These two actions ensured that planes on the ground and in the air could not be hit by rockets.
This coordination may seem like a simple feat, but it raises one large challenge: while planes are in the designated flight route, Iron Dome missiles in the area cannot be fired because they may endanger the flight. This leaves populated areas of Israel temporarily unprotected and civilians vulnerable to attacks from Hamas’ rockets.
This loophole in the protection system can only be gapped by on-the-spot reactions and decision making. If a rocket is fired from Gaza while a plane is in the designated fly route, there is still enough time to clear it out and intercept the rocket, it’s just a matter of working quickly and efficiently with many different systems at once.
“With a lot of hard work and research we have developed outstanding real-time decision making capabilities, that allow us to maneuver these difficult situations,” explains Col. Ran Turgeman, the Commander of the IAF’s Aerial Surveillance Systems. “Without full surveillance over all the aerial space and synchronization between the systems, we wouldn’t have been able to control the situation. It’s not because of luck that no aircraft were hit; it’s because of thinking and technology.”
A number of international flight companies halted their flights to Ben Gurion International Airport for a few days during Operation Protective Edge, after a house in a nearby town had been directly hit by a rocket fired from Gaza. Yet, flights resumed after reassurance from the airport security services that the incident didn’t reflect on the safety of the flights and their passengers.
Despite rocket fire, incessant threats, and strategic challenges, approximately 20,000 international flights and 3,000,000 passengers passed through Ben Gurion International Airport during Operation Protective Edge – proving that while Hamas tried to shut it down, Israel’s door to the world remained open and busy throughout the difficult summer.