THE launch of the first direct scheduled service from Manchester to Israel by budget airline Easyjet has coincided with Tel Aviv coming under rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Reporter Pete Magill was on one of the first flights to land in the capital where air raid sirens are being heard daily for the first time in 20 years.

SECONDS after landing at Manchester Airport, and switching on my phone, I found myself being swamped with messages of concern.

Half-awake after a five-hour flight from Tel Aviv, it was only then that it occurred to me that I’d left what was fast becoming a war zone.

For the first time in 21 years, air raid sirens had been heard in Jerusalem and citizens headed for bomb shelters, as tensions exploded between Israel and Palestine.

Hours earlier our party, travelling with Easyjet to the Holy Land, had shared a hearty meal at an Arab-run cafe in Jaffa on the recommendation of our Jewish tour guide, who was greeted like a long-lost friend.

Our flight departed as Hamas rockets began to pepper the south of Tel Aviv, following an airstrike which killed Ahmed Ja’-Abari, head of the insurgents’ military wing.

There was a clue that something was amiss the previous day, while visiting a hillside cafe high above the city.

Four helicopter gunships left Jerusalem, heading west, packed with what we all believed were departing dignataries.

Just a few hours later, as we toured the Church of the Visitation, where a pregnant Mary was greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, what appeared to be the same aircraft were seen to return.

And within hours, news of the airstrike was splashed across CNN and the BBC World Service, with Israeli leaders insisting the operation had been ‘decisive action’ after enduring months of rockets being fired from Gaza at targets in the south of the country.

In the days which followed my trip, plenty of people have asked whether I’d consider going back to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But thinking back, I grew up in Warrington, a town bombed by the IRA 20 years ago and I’ve been to Dublin and Belfast countless times since.

Places with a story to tell deserve to be heard and I would hate to think that there was not a peaceful solution – and that it may deter visitors from seeking out a genuinely beautiful and hospitable city.

Shortly before departing, we were told that in its first week the Manchester to Tel Aviv route had proved to be the most popular on Easyjet’s books.

The airline has also announced that it will be operating three new routes from Manchester, from next year, as well as basing an eighth aircraft at Ringway.

Eighty jobs will be created at the airport as the city and the North West is provided with new links to Moscow, Prague and Thessaloniki in Greece.

Earlier this year, Easyjet confirmed a seventh aircraft, servicing new routes to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik and Venice, would also be based at Manchester.