Pro-Palestinian activists to stage second ‘flytilla’

Pro-Palestinian activists to stage second ‘flytilla’

During last year’s protest fly-in, Israel prevented demonstrators from entering Israel. But is the state prepared for a second round, planned for the end of the Passover holiday?

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli activists welcome pro-Palestinian 'fly-in' participants at Ben Gurion Airport last year. (photo credit: Flash90)
Israeli activists welcome pro-Palestinian 'fly-in' participants at Ben Gurion Airport last year. (photo credit: Flash90)

Pro-Palestinian activists are planning a rerun of last summer’s fly-in to protest against Israeli policies, during which Israeli authorities prevented hundreds of foreigners from entering the country. About six weeks before the planned event — which last year called on activists to descend en masse upon Ben Gurion International Airport — the government appears unalarmed, apparently trying not to promote it by paying it too much attention.

This year’s flytilla, as the Israeli media called the event in allusion to Gaza-bound sea flotillas which similarly aimed to castigate Israel for its policies, is scheduled for Sunday, April 15. The date is significant because the Passover holiday ends in Israel on the night of Friday, April 13, but because of Shabbat, observant Jewish tourists will not able to fly out of Israel before the day of the planned flytilla. It is unclear whether organizers chose that date intentionally, but increased police presence and potential scuffles might cause additional difficulties and embarrassments for an for already overstrained airport.

“There is no way into Palestine other than through Israeli control points. Israel has turned Palestine into a giant prison, but prisoners have a right to receive visitors,” the flytilla’s organizers proclaim on their website. The campaign seeks to “challenge Israel’s policy of isolating the West Bank while the settler paramilitaries and army commit brutal crimes against a virtually defenseless Palestinian civilian population,” according to the site.

Participants are invited to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport and then to continue on to the West Bank for a series of activities, including lectures and workshops highlighting Palestinian hardships and shedding light on alleged Israeli injustices.

The initiative, officially called “Welcome to Palestine,” has been endorsed by a small group of well-known Israel critics, including former archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Ronnie Kasrils, Hedy Epstein and others.

Most pro-Palestinian groups that have endorsed “Welcome to Palestine 2012” are based in the UK, with a handful in the US. According to the website of the Manchester Palestine Solidarity Campaign, “some people in Manchester have already booked their flights and the plan is that everyone from the North of England travel together from the same airport.”

Last July, Israeli authorities took strong measures to obstruct the planned fly-in. Police presence was increased around the airport and, citing the need to prevent chaos and violence, the Interior Ministry contacted various airlines with lists containing the names of hundreds of passengers it said should not be allowed to board flights to Israel.

Dozens of protesters who managed to land at Ben Gurion were detained by police upon arrival, and according to media reports several were sent back to their departure points.

Several pro-Israeli activists in Britain, such as the members of the “British Israel Coalition,” have considered ways to counter the flytilla. But the government so far seems unfazed by the upcoming event.

A senior Foreign Ministry official dealing with global anti-Israel activism, said he is monitoring all forms of anti-Israel agitation, including the efforts to stage another flytilla. But, he said “our experience has shown that there’s often a big gap between the ambitious talk of Israel’s detractors and their ability to actually carry out and achieve many of their goals.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security declined comment for this article.

Prior to the flytilla, pro-Palestinian activists are planning to hold a “Global March to Jerusalem” to protest “Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing, to demand access to Jerusalem for all peoples, and to uphold Palestinian rights under international law, including refugees’ right of return,” according to the website of the organizers’ North American branch.

The campaign’s spokesperson, Zaher Berawi, said the participants of the march plan to “besiege Israel and its embassies over the world.” The march, scheduled to coincide with “Land Day,” during which Palestinians commemorate a 1976 incident in which several Arabs were killed, is potentially more dangerous than the flytilla, as it is organized in part by militant Palestinians. The head of the march’s Gaza-based committee, for example is Hamas MP Ahmed Abu Halbiya.

But Israeli officials seem not to be too worried about the Global March, either. According to Haaretz, there are no specific operational plans for dealing with the protests come March. Military and diplomatic sources said they were aware of the campaign but were adopting a wait-and-see policy, the paper reported.

Last May, pro-Palestinian activists tried to launch a “third intifada,” but despite hundreds of thousands of online supporters, no major violence occurred. The Global March to Jerusalem has currently about 5,450 “fans” on Facebook.

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