The Greek airline at the center of a scandal involving Israeli Jews and Arabs sent an official apology Wednesday to the Palestine Liberation Organization over an incident in which two Arabs were forced off an Israel-bound flight when a number of Jewish passengers protested their presence.
In a letter to PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat, Aegean Airlines CEO Dimitris Gerogiannis expressed the company’s “greatest regrets for the event” and rejected “any possibility of discrimination.”
“Our crew reacted to a very difficult situation only having the safety and comfort of all passengers in mind,” he wrote.
Gerogiannis was also set to meet with Palestinian ambassador to Greece Marwan Toubassi on Thursday, according to a tweet by Financial Times bureau chief John Reed.
3/2: Aegean CEO Dimitris Gerogiannis will meet Marwan Toubassi, Palestinian ambassador to Greece, this Thursday.
— John Reed (@JohnReedwrites) January 7, 2016
The apology came after Erekat demanded on Wednesday that the Greek government act in the wake of the incident, saying the decision to remove the pair was “reminiscent” of apartheid.
Two Arab passengers with Israeli documents were forced off the flight before it set off from Athens to Tel Aviv on Sunday after Israeli Jews said they were scared due to their presence and suspected they were “terrorists.”
After an initial complaint by passengers, the pair’s documents were checked again by Greek security but no issues were found. But by that stage the protest had escalated, with dozens of passengers refusing to take their seats until the men were removed from the plane.
“It started with three or four people and by the end there were 60-70 people standing up, demanding that the pair disembark,” an Aegean spokesperson said.
Eventually the pair left after negotiations with the airline, staying in a hotel at Aegean’s expense and flying the next day. The incident delayed the flight to Tel Aviv by over 90 minutes.
Israeli media identified the two as an Israeli Arab and a Palestinian, saying the protesting passengers were Jewish.
The airline said only that one of the men held an Israeli passport while the other had a valid Israeli residence permit, without discussing their ethnicity.
Erekat, referring to both men as Palestinians, called the decision to eject them “unjust and disgraceful.”
“We are outraged by how two Palestinians were treated with discrimination and prejudice at the hands of the Aegean cabin crew prior to the departure of last Sunday’s flight,” he said in a statement. “We call upon the Greek government to take strong action against this racist act, including compensation for the two Palestinian passengers. This appalling behavior by the Israeli passengers is reminiscent of the worst years of the South African apartheid.”
Some Israeli Arabs — those who remained in the Jewish state after its 1948 creation, as well as their descendants — self-identify as Palestinian.
Aegean on Tuesday thanked the two Arab men for their cooperation and admitted the incident was regrettable.
“We thank again the two Israeli passengers that agreed to disembark for their understanding and collaboration and we apologize for the whole episode which was indeed extremely unfortunate,” Aegean said.
An Israeli man who was among the passengers involved in the incident defended the group’s actions on Wednesday, maintaining that the two Arab men were “scary” and that he and the other passengers believed they were terrorists.
The man, identified only by his first name, Nissim, told Army Radio that one of the two Arab passengers in particular “looked off and his body language was very threatening.”
“He had a penetrating and scary look,” Nissim said, claiming that a lot of other passengers were similarly spooked by the man.
“We’re entitled to express our concerns,” he insisted. “No one raised [the Arab passengers’] ethnicity or was racist; we expressed our concerns in an objective way, just like when you see someone suspicious in the street and you’re alert. In the case of a flight there is no second chance. It was not a small group of barbarians and racists as they tried to frame us [in the press]. If God forbid something would have happened they would give us a medal.”
Nissim cited the absence of any voices defending the two passengers at the center of the commotion as proof that there was overwhelming concern among everyone on board.
“There was not a single passenger who got up and gave an opposite opinion,” he claimed. “That means everyone felt the same way.”