‘Welcome to Palestine’? Airlines cancel activists’ tickets on Israeli objections

The campaign’s organizers in the West Bank say they want to publicize Israel’s control of movement into and out of the Palestinian territory. (AFP)

Hundreds of Israeli police, many undercover, were at Ben Gurion airport on Sunday to block the arrival of activists taking part in a “Welcome to Palestine” fly-in, police said.

“We have stationed several hundred police in order to maintain order at the airport,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.

Four people who arrived on a flight from Paris early Sunday were stopped for questioning, Rosenfeld said. Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said one was denied entry and the other three were allowed through. She had no information on the whereabouts of the man who had been denied entry.

Haddad said Israel had sent a list of suspected activists to international airlines, asking the carriers to block them from boarding Israel-bound flights. It warned the airlines they would have to cover the cost of the activists’ return and threatened unspecified sanctions on airlines if they did not comply, she said.

“Welcome to Palestine” campaign organizer Amira Musallam said she still expected hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters from around the world to come. Activists who had been barred from flying to Tel Aviv from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris staged an impromptu protest, she said.

“A lot of people did manage to board planes and a lot of people have been denied,” another campaign organizer Mazin Qumsiyeh said, without giving numbers.

He said they were aware of four carriers which had blocked passengers from travelling ─ Lufthansa, Air France, Jet2.com and Brussels Air. He did not mention Swiss Air.

“We are expecting 1,500 people from at least 15 countries,” he said, indicating most of them were expected to fly from Europe.

Last July, Israel blocked a similar fly-in effort by preventing dozens from boarding Tel Aviv-bound flights in Europe and denied entry to 69.

The protest is meant to draw attention to how Israel controls access into Palestinian areas.

Visitors can only reach the West Bank through Israeli-controlled land crossings or Israeli airports, though at any given time, hundreds of foreigners, including activists, are in the territory, which Israel occupied in 1967.

Travelers headed to Palestinian areas of the West Bank often report being detained and questioned, sometimes for hours, by Israeli border authorities.

The campaign’s organizers say they want to publicize Israel’s control of movement into and out of the occupied Palestinian territories and to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The term “flytilla” recalls earlier attempts by pro-Palestinian activists to reach the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip by boat, which have come to be known as “Freedom Flotillas.”

Airlines comply

European airlines have canceled tickets for an unspecified number of passengers planning to attend the pro-Palestinian activist gathering after Israel raised objections.

French carrier Air France and British low fares airline Jet2.com said Saturday they had joined Germany’s Lufthansa in cancelling seats on flights to Tel Aviv.

At Geneva airport a hundred pro-Palestinian activists were being prevented by Swiss police early Sunday from boarding a flight bound for Tel Aviv, the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign said.

There was a high police presence at the airport and one of the activists had their passport confiscated, campaign spokesman Anas Muhammed told AFP by phone.

At Paris’ main Charles de Gaulle airport, several dozen activists demonstrated after being prevented from boarding Lufthansa and Swiss Air flights for Tel Aviv early Sunday.

Flanked by dozens of anti-riot police, they went to the Lufthansa counter to demand an “official written statement” as to why they had not been allowed to fly.

“Our movement is totally peaceful but unfortunately we are still being treated like trouble-makers,” one of the campaign’s organizers in France, Olivier Buchotte, told AFP.

The activists, mainly from European countries, are expected to openly declare their intention to visit the Palestinian West Bank, but Israel vowed to prevent them even from arriving.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday advised activists to concentrate on solving what he called “real problems” in the region, such as Syria and Iran.

“We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns,” he said in an open letter issued by the prime minister’s office.

“We know there were many other worthy choices,” he said.

“You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives.

“You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world,” he said.

“You could have chosen to protest Hamas rule in Gaza, where terror organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians.”

Netanyahu said Israel was “the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal ... human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all.

“We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience,” he said.

The Guardian newspaper reported that Jet2.com had contacted three female passengers late Friday to inform them that their seats had been canceled. They had booked a flight to Tel Aviv scheduled to leave Manchester, northwest England, at 0900 GMT on Sunday.

A company spokeswoman declined to comment on the number of affected passengers.

“Jet2.com was informed by the Israeli authorities that certain passengers booked to travel on flight LS907 would not be permitted to enter Israel,” the company said in a statement.

Lufthansa on Friday canceled dozens of tickets of pro-Palestinian activists for this weekend, saying it was complying with Israeli advice.

Air France said Saturday it had withdrawn tickets for flights Sunday from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport and from Nice on the southwest coast.

“Under the Chicago Convention, Air France refuses to embark any passenger not admissible by Israel,” a spokeswoman said, while declining to say how many passengers were affected.

The “Welcome to Palestine” campaign is taking place for a third consecutive year.

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