Dozens of ‘flytilla’ activists detained, but mass fly-in thwarted

Dozens of ‘flytilla’ activists detained, but mass fly-in thwarted

PM says protesters should focus on Syria, Iran, Gaza; Israeli media bashes heavy-handed response

Israeli police wait inside the arrival hall of the Ben Gurion Airport, April 15, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Israeli police wait inside the arrival hall of the Ben Gurion Airport, April 15, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Seventy-nine international pro-Palestinian activists were denied entry into Israel Sunday at Ben Gurion Airport. 31 of the activists — mostly French nationals — were taken to Givon prison in Ramle pending deportation.

At least 13 of the protesters had been flown back to their home countries as of late evening Israel time. The rest were expected to be deported by Monday.

Police has taken Ben Gurion Airport off high alert preparedness.

Three of the activists succeeded in gaining entry into the country; they traveled to Bethlehem, where they held a press conference. Authorities said late Sunday that they cannot say with certainty that all incoming activists were caught and noted that some may have slipped under the radar of immigration officials.

The foreign activists were part of the so-called “flytilla,” an intended mass fly-in protest organized by several pro-Palestinian organizations. Last year, a similar event resulted in dozens of arrests and deportations. This time, Israeli contacts with numerous governments and airlines saw most of the activists prevented from boarding planes to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday evening that, rather than focusing on Israel, the region’s only democracy, the activists would have been better off seeking to draw international attention to the killings in Syria and to murderous human rights abuses in Iran.

“They should go to Gaza and stop the practice of using children as human shields for terrorists who fire rockets on our citizens,” he went on, speaking at the start of a meeting with visiting US Senator Joe Lieberman. Then, he said, “they should come to Israel and we can talk with them about what they learned about how the Middle East really is.” Similar sentiments were expressed in a letter prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office for distribution to the activists.

Israeli media analysts on Sunday night suggested that Israel had over-reacted to the flytilla. Israel’s Channel 10 carried commentary saying Israel would have been better off greeting the activists with roses, and escorting them onto buses to their intended destination — Bethlehem in the West Bank. “We gave the (pro-Palestinian activists) the pictures they wanted,” the station’s reporter said, speaking over footage of police detaining the arrivals.

The Channel 10 main news broadcast opened with footage of an Israeli officer hitting a pro-Palestinian activist in the face with his rifle butt on Saturday — footage, said news anchor Ya’akov Eilon, that did precisely the “damage to Israel’s image” that Israel had been so keen to avoid with the flytilla at the airport.

Two French diplomats were reportedly included on Israel’s lists of would-be entrants to be denied permission to enter the country. They were told in France that their tickets were being canceled, and were only enabled to fly after intervention higher up the diplomatic hierarchy.

Most of the foreign activists detained were French citizens. The remainder included Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Canadian and Swiss citizens.

Police also detained for questioning nine Israeli left-wing activists, who were at the airport to welcome the foreign activists to “Palestine.”

Security officials at the airport had been expecting the bulk of the international activists to arrive on flights scheduled to land in the late afternoon. But only relatively few more activists were detained as the evening went on.

Border police intended to deport any arriving activists back to their points of origin immediately. According to officials, if there was no room on outgoing flights Sunday, the activists would be handed over to immigration authorities.

A senior airport security official speaking on condition of anonymity said that any activists not removed Sunday would be held at a recently built “spacious” terminal at Ben Gurion that is meant to handle the removal and deportation of illegal aliens. Any individuals held overnight will be processed by Yehidat Oz, a Border Police unit that deals with tracking illegal aliens in Israel, according to the official.

Incoming flights on Sunday considered problematic by security officials due to the presence of flytilla activists were being diverted to Terminal 1, which generally handles domestic flights.

Coming out of a security assessment meeting, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said the level of alert would remain high to ensure the smooth operation of the airport.

“We are going to defend the borders in every possible way,” Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Israel Radio.

The Prime Minister’s Office call the flytilla a “provocation [that] was conceived by extremist Islamic and anti-Israel organizations who object to peace and call for Israel’s destruction.”

Hundreds of international pro-Palestinian activists were scheduled to arrive at the airport on Sunday in protest of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, but were not expected to be allowed entry into the country. An estimated 650 police and security officials, most in plain clothes, were assigned to guard the airport.

According to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Sunday is to be a very busy day at Ben Gurion, with some 50,000 travelers passing through the airport at the end of the Passover and Easter holidays.

Authorities were paying particular attention to flights arriving from England, France, Belgium and Turkey.

Turkish authorities were actively preventing activists from getting on flights from Istanbul, according to reports on Twitter.

Israel Radio reported that 100 activists in Geneva and seven in Rome were prevented from boarding their flights by authorities.

Dozens of left-wing activists protested at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris on Sunday against the canceled flights, holding up signs reading: “The first checkpoint is in Paris.”

The protesters in France also called for a boycott on airlines that were cooperating with government efforts to stop activists from arriving in Israel.

The Prime Minister’s Office prepared a letter to be distributed to the activists who do arrive, defending Israel’s policies and advising them to focus on the “real problems” plaguing the region like Syria, Iran and Gaza before wishing them a “pleasant flight home.”

Katz vigorously defended Israel’s right to turn away the activists, whom he said are known provocateurs backed by Iran. “Let’s not kid ourselves, these people are arriving to deliberately undermine Israel’s sovereignty,” Katz said, asserting that Israel’s response was proportionate to the threat.

“We are one of the most democratic and liberal states in the world… but these are not people who want to be interviewed or who want peace. These are not simple people. They are people who want to harm the State of Israel,” said Katz.

“This is the way to guard our borders,” he added. “Ben Gurion Airport is the entrance to the state. What if tomorrow they want to enter from the border with Jordan, Syria or Gaza? We have the right not to grant entry, just like any state.”

Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On told Israel Radio she believed Israel was mishandling the protest. “The decision makers in this country have gone crazy,” said Gal-On. “Of course we have the right to defend our sovereignty, but the security of the state would not be threatened by several hundred protesters.”

Gal-On said that Israel’s reaction to the protest blew the whole affair out of proportion. “We have turned this into an international story that only serves those who delegitimize us,” she said. “Israel has adopted the practices of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad by blocking off its borders. The best way to handle criticism is to negate it.”

Several right-wing activists, including National Union MK Michael Ben Ari, arrived at the airport Sunday morning to hold a counter-protest. “This is not just another fly-in, this is anti-Semitism in modern garb,” said Ben Ari.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) also said that “these are not peace activists, they are anti-Israel and anti-Semites. They are against the existence of Israel and want to draw attention to that by international actions…we can’t give them a stage to delegitimize the State of Israel.”

MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad), who was a passenger during 2010 Mavi Marmama flotilla incident, expressed support for the activists, saying “Israel needs to reconsider it’s policies and listen to criticism.”

“We now see the results of a well-prepared strategy to prevent the infiltration of activists and provocateurs whose aim is to breach Israel’s sovereignty,” He posted on his Facebook page. “We have been working with our partners to ensure that Israel, like any other nation, will not allow problematic elements to enter our country in order to act against our national interests and security.”

The police were instructed to use minimal force in dispersing the demonstrations and apprehending the protesters.

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