BEN GURION AIRPORT, Tel Aviv (IPS) - Hundreds of armed soldiers and police spread throughout Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on 8 July, arresting six Israeli activists for unfurling flags and chanting slogans in solidarity with the Palestinians.
As well as arresting the activists, police had to physically protect them from a mob of their Israeli compatriots in the airport who punched, cursed and spat at them.
The Israeli activists were in the airport to greet hundreds of other political campaigners from across Europe and North America, who were participating in the “Welcome to Palestine” initiative, coordinated between 15 Palestinian organizations and supporters abroad.
The plan was to descend en masse at Ben Gurion and announce their intention to visit the West Bank and Gaza, where they would then take part in various activities.
Ben Gurion is the main international airport used by visitors to the West Bank and Gaza. But foreigners who declare their intention to visit, volunteer or work in the West Bank or Gaza upon arrival at the airport are routinely denied entrance and deported.
No secret over travel plans
This time the activists made no secret about where they intended to go.
Amos Harel in the Israeli daily Haaretz said that the Israeli authorities’ reaction was “hysterical and disproportionate.”
“The fly-in, despite the mountains of words written about it over the past week, does not really pose a security threat to Israel,” Harel wrote. “At most, it involves several hundred activists coming to Israel from friendly states and all those countries conduct extensive security checks on flights to Israel. Thus the chance that any of these activists will manage to smuggle even a knife into Israel is remote. And a noisy demonstration at the airport or a mass lie-in in front of passport control would be a public relations stunt, not a substantive threat to the well-being of Israel’s citizens.”
However, Israel’s justice ministry, interior ministry, foreign ministry and several defense departments thought differently.
The Israeli authorities were so concerned about negative media coverage reaching the front pages of world dailies that many of the estimated 600 soldiers and police involved in the operation went undercover in ordinary clothes with no weapons or riot control kits visible.
Security on flights bringing the activists into Israel was beefed up. Planes landing with groups of activists on board were instructed to land away from the terminal where flights from abroad usually arrive.
Several journalists were physically escorted from the terminal by Israeli security and others were barred from entering. However, many made it in, resulting in saturation coverage of the arrest of the Israeli activists and the immediate deportation of dozens of foreign activists.
Travelers blacklisted before flying
More than 300 activists were turned away at their airports of departure in Europe after Israel presented several airlines with a passenger blacklist. Despite the draconian measures, well over 100 made it to Ben Gurion, with several dozen managing to slip through security questioning and make it to the West Bank after posing as “innocent tourists.”
More than a hundred activists who didn’t make it through the hours of grilling by Israeli security agents were brought to several Israeli prisons and were likely to be deported.
Airlines involved in flying activists back have said that logistics could be an issue, with flights fully booked.
Dubbed a “flytilla,” the protest action was similar to that of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla II, which aimed to break the siege of Gaza that Israel has imposed. Many of the boats participating in the flotilla were prevented from sailing from Greek ports over the past few weeks. Diplomatic pressure was applied on an economically vulnerable Greece by Israel and the United States.
Sabotage of several boats in Greek ports and threats to passengers also succeeded in preventing some of the boats from sailing.
While Israel won that battle, it lost a publicity war over the flotilla.
“Blocking the flotilla did not discourage the organizers, who are graduates of the anti-apartheid and anti-white supremacy struggles,” veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass wrote in Haaretz. “Rather, it provided ample proof of how white Israel is. As a result, blocking the flotilla only increased their motivation to keep placing the Palestinians’ demand for freedom at the forefront of the international agenda.”
Israel’s latest public relations difficulty comes in the wake of several UN reports criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for the use of excessive force during Nakba Day demonstrations in May to mark Palestinian dispossession. More than twenty unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli forces on that day.
Another UN report condemned Israel for using excessive force on the first Gaza Freedom Flotilla last year when Israeli commandos shot dead nine Turkish activists aboard the Mavi Marmara, some of them at point-blank range.
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