Europe’s airlines enforce Israeli travel ban on activists hoping to repair Palestinian schools

Israeli activists were arrested for holding “Welcome to Palestine” signs at Ben Gurion airport on Sunday.


JERUSALEM (IPS) - As 60 percent of the international activists set to land at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday had their plane tickets cancelled, organizers of the Welcome to Palestine “fly-in” campaign condemned what they say is European complicity in Israel’s illegal restrictions on their right to travel freely.

“It’s a sign of capitulation and obedience to illegal orders from the Israeli government since European regulations state that people have the right to travel,” Nicolas Shahshahani, an organizer with a French delegation of approximately 500 persons originally planning to arrive in Tel Aviv on Sunday, 15 April, said.

German airline Lufthansa cancelled all flights from French airports into Tel Aviv scheduled for Sunday. Activists also reported that British airline, Air France and EasyJet had cancelled activists’ tickets, after Israel circulated a no-fly list and threatened legal action should the airlines transport the activists to Tel Aviv.

Up to 2,000 international Palestine solidarity activists had booked flights to Tel Aviv in order to spend a week volunteering and visiting different areas of the occupied West Bank, including Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and the Jordan Valley. They planned to openly announce their intention to visit areas under Israeli occupation upon arrival at the airport.

The activities — which include renovating a kindergarten, planting trees and repairing water wells — were coordinated with 25 local Palestinian organizations.

Right to be visited

“Our goal is to be visited as Palestinians,” Mazin Qumsiyeh, media coordinator of the Welcome to Palestine initiative, said. “Under occupation this need to be visited is even more important. Even prisoners in prisons are entitled to visitors, so we are insisting on our right to be visited and the right for people to visit us freely.”

As of 10am Sunday morning, the Israeli authorities had stopped a handful of international activists at Ben Gurion airport, where the Israeli government had deployed 650 police and security officers.

“The Israeli government said that [the activists] are coming to cause trouble. This is a lie. We are continuing with our program regardless of what happens and regardless of the number of people who get in,” Qumsiyeh added.

Last year, more than 400 people were denied access to their flights to Tel Aviv from airports across Europe. Approximately 125 activists managed to make it to Ben Gurion airport, but most were interrogated, detained and deported after announcing their intention to visit Palestine.

Israel controls all entry points into the West Bank and has erected nearly 100 checkpoints within that severely limit Palestinian freedom of movement. Israel also maintains a strict blockade and permit-pass system on Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip, and restricts nearly all outside access to the besieged area.

All foreigners wishing to visit, work or volunteer in the West Bank or Gaza must pass through Israeli security checks in order to access the areas, forcing most to lie or conceal their true intentions for being there.

“These policies serve to isolate the Palestinians from the rest of the world, and from international visitors. It affects the economy. It affects higher education. It affects, I think, all aspects of Palestinian life,” Sarah Anabtawi, coordinator of the Right to Enter campaign, which defends the rights of access, movement and residency in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, said.

Reaction of a thief

On Saturday, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office released a sarcastic letter, supposedly meant to be distributed to the activists upon their arrival in Tel Aviv, which suggested other places the activists could focus their human rights work, such as Syria or Iran.

“You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent,” the letter reads, “but instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, and human rights organizations can operate freely.”

According to Mazin Qumsiyeh, Israel’s reaction to the fly-in highlights the Israeli government’s desire to limit public awareness of the situation in Palestine, and shield itself from international criticism and pressure.

“This is a hysterical reaction of a thief who doesn’t want to be exposed as a thief. They don’t want the world to know what’s happening here. They want to isolate us even more and prevent internationals from coming to Palestine to find out what’s going on,” Qumsiyeh said.

“It’s a confirmation that Israel isolates us and prevents us from having a normal life. It’s an apartheid state that doesn’t want the world to find out that it’s an apartheid state.”

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