Someone with nothing to go on but radio bulletins might have been forgiven for thinking something close to a war for national survival was under way at Israel’s international airport Sunday, the day of a scheduled protest fly-in by pro-Palestinian activists.
“We are going to defend the borders in every possible way,” Israel’s transportation minister, Yisrael Katz, told Israel Radio. The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the planned protest a provocation “conceived by extremist Islamic and anti-Israel organizations who object to peace and call for Israel’s destruction.”
Organizers had promised a mass fly-in to Ben Gurion Airport to protest against Israel. According to some reports, as many as 2,500 activists would take part in a major disruption of service at the country’s international airport.
But by mid-morning, nothing much was happening. Nothing had been happening for quite some time, reported an Associated Press TV cameraman in the arrivals hall who had replaced another cameraman who had watched nothing happen for most of the night.
A flight arrived from Toronto, then one from Stockholm. A sandy-haired girl emerged into the hall and embraced a man in cargo shorts. Yesterday’s withered welcome balloons clung to the ceiling like brightly colored raisins. A sweet-voiced woman on the PA system advised passengers to mind their luggage. Planes landed from Odessa and Berlin.
There were no fewer than 13 TV cameras and about 30 journalists around the terminal, bored and standing around in clumps. Anyone expecting Tahrir Square was presented instead with “Waiting for Godot.”
In a demonstration of the way Israel and its media-savvy enemies often feed off each other, Israeli politicians had answered the activists’ provocation in the days leading up to the protest by being provoked, verbally playing up the event and turning a little news story into a bigger one.
Environment Minister Gilad Erdan called the participants “anti-Semites.” Police mobilized very publicly, and Israel’s Information Directorate released a sarcastic letter that it said would be given to the activists before they were deported.
“You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily acts of savagery against its own people,” or the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza, or the government of Iran, read the letter. “But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy.
“We therefore suggest you solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience. Have a nice flight,” read the letter.
Yarden Vatikay, who coordinates the country’s media policy, confirmed the letter had indeed been circulated by Israel’s official media HQ. It was, he said, a sardonic attempt to “pop the balloon” of the activists’ rhetoric.
“The agenda of human rights has been hijacked and is being used for purely political purposes,” Vatikay said. Peace activists were regularly allowed into Israel, he said, but the country could not allow the airport to be targeted or disrupted.
The news being otherwise slow, local and international media turned out in force Sunday.
It was acknowledged among the journalists that any action would almost certainly take place at the airport’s old terminal, number 1, where planes identified as carrying activists had been routed and where police would be carrying out arrests. But press didn’t have access to the relevant parts of that terminal. At the airport’s main terminal, number 3, on the other hand, nothing of importance was expected to happen, but it was open to the press and there was a café. It was decided that being in a place where one could watch nothing happen was preferable to being in a place where something was happening but one could not watch. Reporters congregated in Terminal 3.
There were also several dozen policemen around the arrivals hall, part of a reinforced contingent around the airport that a police spokesman said had been upped from the usual 200 officers to 500. The officers’ job was to “prevent pro-Palestinian activists from creating disturbances,” said the spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld. By midday, a Canadian national had been detained coming in on an American flight, a Frenchwoman on El Al, and a Portuguese national coming from Jordan, he said.
Also in the hall were a few Israeli activists with blue-and-white flags who hoped to counter the anti-Israel protesters, as well as two practitioners of political theater from the hazy margins of the Israeli right, Baruch Marzel and lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari, who tend to show up anywhere there are Jewish-Arab tensions and TV cameras. Ben-Ari told a few reporters that the fly-in represented “anti-Semitism in modern garb,” suggested that the activists set up a Palestinian state in France, and left.
Not long afterwards there was a sudden commotion. Actual activists, it seemed, had made it through passport control and were in the arrivals hall. Two men unfurled signs reading “Welcome to Palestine” and were quickly surrounded and hustled away by a crowd of blue-shirted police, followed by a dozen news photographers desperate for the day’s only worthwhile shot. The whole thing was over in a few seconds, and the hall went back immediately to its routine of waiting punctuated by loudspeaker announcements and the happy shouts of embracing families, and more waiting.
Now, however, the passengers filing through the hall with their luggage carts seemed to possess a certain mystique: Was the pudgy man in the baseball hat a disguised activist? Was that a Palestinian flag in his fanny pack? What about the tired-looking woman in jogging pants? The bearded man in the black hat?
Then another commotion: This time, a woman in a pink top who had been seen waiting innocuously for some time in the arrivals hall turned out to be an activist, pulling out a small piece of paper with something written on it. There was a burst of excitement as police hustled her away before most of those present could read what the sign said. From a pedestal near the airport’s entrance, a bust of David Ben-Gurion observed the proceedings, his bronze forehead gleaming.
By evening a total of around 40 people had been arrested, most of them French nationals. Most were slated to be deported by nightfall.
At no point was service at the airport disrupted, police said.