Airlines help Israel bar activists
Ben-Gurion Airport - About 200 pro-Palestinian activists have been barred from leaving foreign airports for Israel, where authorities are poised to deport others who manage to fly in, Israeli police said on Friday.
After Greece grounded a flotilla that hoped to sail against Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip this month, protesters mobilised to flock to Ben-Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, in a challenge to Israeli curbs on accessing the occupied West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced them as provocateurs. His government ordered a crackdown, citing concern for public order at Israel's main gateway to the world, or that the foreign sympathisers would reinforce Palestinian rallies.
Discovering that they would not be allowed to board their Israel-bound aircraft from France, Germany and Switzerland, scores of activists decried what they called an abuse of power.
"I am absolutely shocked that it is even possible that I am being blacklisted without any evidence that I have done anything at all," one of them, Cynthia Beat, said in Berlin.
"Apparently, it is sufficient to state that you would like to go to Palestine, to spend time with Palestinians, in order to be banned from Israel."
342 on list
Palestinians have no airport of their own, making travel through Ben-Gurion, just 10km from the West Bank, the most direct route for their visitors from abroad.
According to Israel's biggest newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the government issued European airlines with a list of 342 suspected activists who would be turned back at Ben-Gurion, with the carriers expected to bear the cost of returning them.
"What we can confirm is that there have been approximately 200 people that have not gotten on the airplanes overseas," police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said.
"That's due to the fact ... that the international companies that are flying out realised that those individuals would have to fly back and won't be allowed inside Israel and therefore financially it was not worth them taking the risk."
Two American women who flew in overnight were detained on grounds of "security problems" and deported, Rosenfeld said.
Police also arrested six Israelis who demonstrated against the clampdown at Ben-Gurion. One of them screamed "Free Palestine" in Arabic as she was dragged out of the terminal.
Palestinian organiser Mazen Qumsieh said some would-be visitors would give themselves away by naming "Palestine" as their destination rather than telling Israeli immigration officers they were pilgrims, as many travellers do.
"We did not request that they do that," Qumsieh said. He added he was satisfied with the publicity over the crackdown.
Mick Napier, a member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said he intended to risk being detained at Ben-Gurion.
"I think your prime minister, Netanyahu, is kind of really over the top in suggesting that peaceful visitors flying in to the airport and then taking the bus to (the West Bank city of) Bethlehem was in some way a threat to the security of the state," he told Israel's Army Radio by telephone.
"You can win the battle and lose the war here."
Apparently unaffected by the beefed-up police deployment in Ben-Gurion, Israeli counter-demonstrator Michelle Marshalian held a sign urging protesters to go instead to Syria, Libya and other Arab states roiled by revolts against autocratic regimes.
"I think it is very hypocritical that so many people are activists against Israel," Marshalian said.