Israel was preparing to expel 124 mostly European activists who had managed to arrive on flights to the country as part of a pro-Palestinian protest, an official said on Saturday.
“Access to Israeli territory was blocked to 124 pro-Palestinian militants coming from Europe, who are now being held in Israel jails,” said Sabine Hadad, spokeswoman for the immigration service.
They will be expelled “as soon as there are places on appropriate flights,” she said, adding that because Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, “there are not a lot of flights and this could take a bit of time.”
She said most of the activists were French, with the others being American, Belgian, Bulgarian, Dutch and Spanish.
While awaiting expulsion, they are being held at two jails -- one near Tel Aviv and the other in the Negev desert.
“They are receiving the same correct treatment as all other prisoners,” Ms. Hadad said.
The activists were participating in the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign, which some have called the “flytilla,” in which up to 800 activists were to fly in on a peaceful mission to visit Palestinian families.
Israeli authorities said they largely managed to pre-empt the campaign by foreign activists demonstrating for the right of access to the occupied West Bank.
Officials said that by notifying foreign airlines of ticket-holders who would not be admitted to Israel they had prevented hundreds from boarding at their ports of departure.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said more than 300 people were questioned on Friday after flying in to Tel Aviv and were allowed to stay, and others arriving on later flights would also undergo questioning.
He said some flights were told to park near the airport’s less crowded domestic terminal where passengers disembarked and underwent an initial check.
After Greece grounded a flotilla that hoped to sail to the Gaza Strip this month in a protest against Israel’s blockade of the enclave, protesters mobilized to flock to Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, in a challenge to Israeli curbs on entry to the occupied West Bank.
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists were also prevented from flying to Israel from airports abroad, after Israel told airlines that certain people on passenger lists would not be allowed into the country.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the activists as provocateurs. His government ordered a crackdown, citing concern for public order at Israel’s main gateway to the world, and fear that foreign sympathizers would reinforce Palestinian rallies.
Scores of activists, told they would not be allowed to board flights to Israel from France, Germany and Switzerland, denounced what they called an abuse of power.
What we can confirm is that there have been approximately 200 people that have not gotten on the airplanes overseas,” Mr. Rosenfeld said.
“That’s due to the fact ... that the international companies that are flying out realized 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.”
Earlier police arrested six Israelis who demonstrated against the clampdown at Ben-Gurion. One screamed “Free Palestine” in Arabic as she was dragged out of the terminal. Two American women who flew in overnight were deported, Rosenfeld said.
Palestinian organizer Mazen Qumsieh said some potential visitors would give themselves away by naming “Palestine” as their destination rather than telling Israeli immigration officers they were pilgrims, as many travelers do.
“We did not request that they do that,” Mr. 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.”
(Sara Ghasemilee, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: email@example.com)