TEL AVIV // It was supposed to bring in waves of people to protest Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. But by yesterday afternoon, the so-called "flytilla" - about 1,200 mainly European activists hoping to fly to Israel and declare their intention to visit the occupied West Bank - barely got off the ground.
At least 41 people arriving from France, Spain, Italy and Canada were arrested by the dozens by police officers deployed to Ben Gurion International Airport for the event.
Mickey Rosenfeld, Israel's police spokesman, said officers were prepared to intercept the "hundreds of activists throughout Sunday" who were expected to arrive. They would be sent back to their home countries and, he added, as "part of normal procedure, they would be questioned and each case will be decided upon individually".
In most cases, participants did not get a chance to even board their Tel Aviv-bound flights: more than 60 per cent of them were informed by airlines that their flights to Israel had been cancelled, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday.
Last week, Israel began pressuring European carriers not to let suspected activists fly to the country. Authorities reportedly gave an unspecified number of airlines a list of more than 1,000 people it would bar from entering the country. Airlines were told they would have to pay the cost of the return flight for any blacklisted passenger they flew in.
Yesterday, that prompted protests by scores of grounded passengers in airports across Europe. At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Israel-bound passengers demonstrated when they discovered their Lufthansa and Swiss flights had been cancelled.
"None of us were planning to do anything illegal," said Laura Durkay, 30, a writer from New York who planned to fly to Israel from Britain. On Friday, her airline, JetBlue, said her ticket had been cancelled.
"We were planning to travel to Bethlehem, see friends, plant olive trees, repair damaged wells and lay a cornerstone for a new kindergarten."
Organisers of the fly-in, called the "Welcome to Palestine" campaign, vowed to take legal action against airlines that refused to fly activists to Israel. They hope such demonstrations will highlight the hardships Palestinians experience living under Israeli-military occupation. Last year, Israel detained more than 100 people during a similar fly-in before sending them back.
"There will be legal action because of this," said Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem-based spokesman for the activists, although he did not specify which airlines might be targets of lawsuits.
Even so, he called yesterday's fly-in a "partial success" because of the media attention it had attracted.
The office of Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Saturday issued a sarcastic welcome letter to the activists echoing the "thank you for choosing our airline" announcement by flight attendants before take-off. It chided them for not protesting the governments of Syria and Iran.
Israel has become wary of run-ins with pro-Palestinian activists, after its military killed nine people - eight Turks and one Turkish-American - during a raid on Gaza-bound aid flotilla two years ago.
Palestinian activists accused Israel's security agencies of escalated intimidation to thwart yesterday's event. Jack Nino, a Palestinian activist from Bethlehem, said soldiers raided his home 10 days ago and confiscated his computer and mobile phone. They demanded a list of participating activists.
"They demanded that I hand over the list of activists," he said. "But I didn't keep a list on me."
He said activists had taken extra caution not to make public lists of participants. Even so, he added, authorities still managed to identify participating activists.
Ilana Stein, a spokeswoman for Israel's foreign ministry, denied any intimidation and said authorities used "open source" information, such as social-networking sites, to monitor activists.
Only those who discussed creating "chaos" and "provocations" were placed on the passenger blacklist that was distributed to airlines.
Israel's military did not respond to requests for comment.
* With additional reporting by Reuters