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Many major airlines have resumed flight operations to Tel Aviv or said they plan to, with some aircraft overflying Israel again.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 28 March 2024.

  • Conflict-related risks associated with flying to and from Israel seem to have eased over the past month
  • Flying over the region – a key hub to travel between Europe and Asia – will probably remain dangerous over the coming years amid acute military tensions, not least between Israel and the US on one hand and Iran on the other

Flying to, from and over Israel has become safer over the past month. Gaza-based militants are struggling to launch rockets towards Tel Aviv. And Israel-Hezbollah exchanges of fire have remained largely contained to Israel’s northern border and at low altitudes.

But we assess that overflying the region more broadly will remain dangerous and liable to sudden worsening over the coming years. The war in Gaza has compounded military tensions, including with pro-Iranian groups. And some of these – notably in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen – have displayed anti-aircraft weaponry as well as their willingness to use them against military aircraft. While they have shown no clear intent to target civil aviation, there remains a high chance of a mistake or misidentification.

Flights to and from Tel Aviv likely to pick up

Flight options to and from Ben Gurion International Airport seem very likely to pick up over the coming months. Many major airlines have resumed operations there or said they will. The previously high risk of Gaza-based militants launching rockets towards Tel Aviv, including the airport, is now low in our assessment. They launched the last major salvo of rockets on 29 January. In a sign of the easing risk, the local aviation authority has reopened pre-war flight paths into Ben Gurion, having redirected traffic to northern routes during the first few months of the war.

Flying over Israel towards other destinations also appears to be safer again. Monthly overflight traffic has reached 4,962 in February after falling to 3,528 in November 2023, albeit still much less than before the war. That also makes routes between Europe and other Middle Eastern countries shorter. Exchanges of fire between Israel and Hezbollah have been largely contained to the country’s northern border and happen at low altitudes mostly up to 5,000ft (for example involving rockets and mortars). Neither Hezbollah nor any other group involved in the conflict has expressed an intent to target civil aviation.

But flying over Israel, as well as over Lebanon, is liable to become dangerous again at short notice. The risk of an Israel-Hezbollah war remains high, in our assessment. A war would involve Hezbollah using other weapons in its arsenal, such as long-range missiles to target major cities including Tel Aviv; so far it has mainly launched rockets. Israel would almost certainly seek to render the only public airport in Beirut inoperative within the first few days of a conflict to prevent Hezbollah from using it to support its military activities.

Conflict-related risks to regional overflight to remain high

Despite such risks easing in Israel, overflying some parts of the region is likely to remain dangerous over the coming years. That is particularly over Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, but also the Red Sea. The war has brought back to the fore military tensions between Israel and the US on one side, and Iran and regional armed groups aligned with it on the other. During the course of the conflict such groups have also displayed their anti-aircraft capabilities and a readiness to use them.

No such group has indicated that it is seeking to target commercial aircraft. But both Hezbollah and the Houthis have reportedly used surface-to-air missiles against the Israeli and US drones respectively targeting southern Lebanon and northern Yemen. The US aviation authorities also said in September 2022 that Iran-aligned groups in Iraq have access to an ‘Iranian-produced 358 loitering hybrid surface-to-air missile’. It further stated that this poses ‘inadvertent risks to the safety of US civil aviation operations […] at altitudes below [32,000ft].’

We anticipate that Israel will shift to mounting more overt attacks against Iran over the coming years. There have been calls across Israel’s political spectrum since the Hamas attack that ‘action against Iran is necessary’ to eliminate armed groups such as Hezbollah that threaten Israel’s security. Future Israeli governments are likely to pressure the US and Europe to support that.

Such military-diplomatic tensions and talk of attacks or operations would probably prompt Iran to maintain its air defences on high alert. Its air defences shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane in January 2020 amid heightened military tensions with the US. Although this is a very unlikely scenario at present, should Iran be expecting an attack, a local air defence operator under pressure would be slightly more likely to repeat the same mistake.

Overflying Saudi airspace is also liable to become dangerous again below 32,000ft. The Houthis at present are not targeting the Kingdom’s territory given its stable diplomatic relations with Iran. But those are fragile and would quickly change in the likely event of a Saudi-Israel normalisation over the coming years. The Houthis are equally likely to keep using attacks on shipping as a negotiation tactic for any concessions they may want in the future meaning US air defence activity in the Red Sea will probably be a recurring issue.

Image: Ground crews prepare an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, for a demonstration flight at the Dubai International Airport in Dubai, on 30 January 2023. Photo by Giuseppe Cacace /AFP via Getty Images.