More than 100 ‘Welcome to Palestine’ activists reportedly barred from entering Israel and will spend the weekend in detention facilities, while hundreds others banned from boarding flights; on Friday, bystanders jeer, assault Israeli activists as police look on.
Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv – On one of the busiest travel days of the week, Ben Gurion International Airport just outside of Tel Aviv was in a state of near chaos this afternoon. Hordes of tourists mixed with hundreds of police officers and journalists in the grand arrival terminal as Israel prepared for the landing of hundreds of pro-Palestinian tourists attempting to travel to the West Bank. Last night, two pro-Palestinian American activists, who were also passengers on the US boat to Gaza, were detained by immigration authorities as they attempted to enter Israel. They were the first of reportedly hundreds activists who have been banned from entering the state of Israel in the last 24 hours. Hundreds of other tourists were not allowed to board their flights to Tel Aviv after Israeli security authorities sent their names to airlines such as Air France which were carrying suspect activists to Israel.
Several dozen activists arrived at Tel Aviv in the afternoon from Switzerland, London and Germany. Israel has moved the passengers to a different terminal, where they were interrogated by security forces. Later this evening, it was reported that more than one hundred passengers who declared their wish to visit the West Bank or were suspected to be pro-Palestinian will spend the weekend in detention facilities, before they are to be deported from Israel on Sunday.
Over the past week, Israeli media has been frantically reporting that hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists planned to arrive at Ben Gurion airport with clear intentions to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Part of a Europe-based campaign, “Welcome to Palestine,” their political protest has been labelled the “air flotilla” or “flytilla” by the international press, despite organizers rejecting connections to the flotilla, which was recently stopped by the Greek coast guard from sailing to the Gaza Strip. The Israeli media, at the time of writing, is referring to the event as a “Gaza fly-in“ despite no proof or comment that passengers intend to travel to Gaza. In fact, the organizers have been clear in their desire to travel freely and openly to the West Bank and not Gaza.
Visitors to the West Bank usually hide their destination for fear of being deported from Israel, but participants of “Welcome to Palestine” decided to openly declare their wish to visit Palestinian towns and villages.
This morning, hundreds of plain clothes and uniformed police scoured the Ben Gurion arrival hall in order to “establish calm” ahead of the arrival of the activists. By 13:00, Israeli and foreign journalists had taken over the arrival terminal as the first flights landed. At approximately 13:30, several Israeli activists belonging to the leftist group Anarchists against the Wall held up small signs reading “Welcome to Palestine.” Some protesters held up Palestinian flags before undercover and regular cops pounced on them and dragged them outside the terminal.
Several dozen people, who had been waiting in the terminal to pick up loved ones, began chanting, “Pieces of shit” and “Go to Syria” as the protesters were taken to waiting police vans. Some of the onlookers spit, kicked and punched the protesters while they were in police custody. Police officers did nothing to prevent these attacks.
At one point, Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner was detained as he pleaded with the angry mob of onlookers to stop attacking the detained activists.
“You can’t enter the West Bank without military permission even as a tourist,” Prime Minister’s Office Arabic spokesman Ofir Gendelman remarked after the Israeli activists were arrested. His statement confirms Israel’s absolute military control over the West Bank. “These pro-Palestinian activists do not recognize the State of Israel and this is a clear provocation against us,” he continued in the buzzing terminal. When asked if passengers will be deported for stating intentions to travel to the West Bank as tourists, his response was dismissive: “We know that some of these passengers have connections with Hamas and this is unacceptable.”
Earlier this week, a media release by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office labeled the Welcome to Palestine campaign as “part of an ongoing attempt to undermine Israel’s right to exist.”
After the detained activists were driven away from the airport, police officers began inspecting the press credentials of all the journalists present. Two journalists, carrying valid Israeli government issued press cards, were asked to leave the airport and were escorted to the exit by armed soldiers. The journalists, both well-known leftists, believe that they were asked to leave the airport because of their political affiliations with prominent left-wing groups in Israel. You can read the account of one of the journalists in Hebrew. No other journalists were barred from covering the event.
It seems that some passengers have made it through the passport controls and are currently on their way to Bethlehem where there will be a large celebration marking their arrival this evening. Exact numbers of activists that successfully entered Israeli is unknown at this point. Israeli lawyers are at the airport working with the detained passengers.
This post has been updated. Noam Sheizaf contributed to this piece from Tel Aviv.
Mobocracy at Ben-Gurion Airport
Journalist Larry Derfner came to Tel Aviv airport to cover the arrival of international activists. Once in the reception hall, a small Israeli mob turned on him. In a matter of seconds, he found himself in a police van
By Larry Derfner
Anybody who believes the platitude that the people want peace, it’s just the leaders who want war, should have been at Ben-Gurion Airport today. It’s a good thing those Free Palestine activists got arrested; otherwise, the little mob that formed spontaneously would have punched them up pretty good.
Only minutes after I got to the Arrivals hall, a few activists stood in front of the phalanx of reporters and cameramen, help up their little signs and started chanting “Israel Apartheid” and ”Free Palestine!” The cops tore the signs from their hands and started pushing them toward the exit. After the first couple of minutes of watching in shocked silence, people in the terminal started to boo. Men were cursing loudly – “sons of bitches,” “garbage,” and things in Arabic I didn’t understand.
A couple of dozen people, mainly men but also a few women, followed very close behind the tightly-bunched demonstrators, cops and reporters to the police van. “Throw them in the garbage,” shouted one woman. An old man tried to get at one of the activists, but the police stopped him.
I was there ostensibly as a journalist, and I was scribbling notes, but I felt cowardly not saying anything to these nationalist hooligans, so I started telling them in Hebrew, “What are these people doing?” The woman who wanted them thrown in the garbage said, “They’re hurting us!” I said, “They’re talking,” and the little mob turned on me, a couple of the men raised their fists. The woman told me, “Go back home, get out of here,” I said, “I live here.” The cops mistook me for a demonstrator, put me in the police van, but when I showed them my press card, they let me go.
Let me repeat – the police started off arresting the demonstrators, but very shortly their main task was to keep them from being assaulted. They had to hold back the herd — and that’s what these people were, a herd incited by the idea that these protesters, non-violent protesters trying to get to the West Bank, were a menace, an immediate threat to their security.
And I do not buy the idea that these people are helpless pawns being manipulated by the government, the media, the right-wing politicians. Most Israelis, even if they wouldn’t join a mob like the one at the airport, want to hear the belligerent rhetoric the opinion-makers are feeding them. They hate anybody who says anything bad about Israel, and take their words automatically as “blood libels.” The opinion-makers know this, and the ones who are popular and want to stay that way tell the people what they want to hear.
Who’s manipulating whom is a chicken-and-egg question.
Watching my enraged countrymen at Ben-Gurion, I imagined the daily headlines having been distilled into a kind of political methadrine and mainlined into their veins. Few Israelis would join them in physically going after people chanting slogans. But in their insistence that protesters like these be silenced because their words are acts of violence, acts of war, of terrorism, they represent the majority. They are an authentic expression of the national will. Theirs is the loudest voice in the land, it’s joined by the voice of Netanyahu, the government, the settlers and most of the media. All competing voices are drowned out.
Which is why these foreign activists on these flotillas, whatever I or anybody else thinks of the totality of their politics, are absolutely vital not only to the Palestinians, but to Israel. They’re bringing oxygen to a suffocating nation.
Larry Derfner is a journalist and an op-ed contributor for the Jerusalem Post. This post was published on his joint blog with 972’s Dimi Reider, Israel Reconsidered, and is re-posted here with the author’s permission.