x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Israel challenged by publicity stunts

Peaceful international protests organised by pro-Palestine activists are capturing the attention of media and challenging Israel's security and diplomats.

Foreign and Israeli left-wing activists hold posters during a weekly protest to show solidarity with Palestinians against a Jewish settlement in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem July 8, 2011.
Foreign and Israeli left-wing activists hold posters during a weekly protest to show solidarity with Palestinians against a Jewish settlement in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem July 8, 2011.

JERUSALEM // Israel is being confronted by what observers call an increasingly formidable form of pro-Palestinian activism - foreign nationals staging non-violent publicity stunts.

Israel's reaction to these international incidents, critics said, have played into the hands of activists, who blitzed news organisations to cover their protests.

The latest protest, organised through social-networking websites and e-mails, featured American and European activists planning to fly to Israel's Ben Gurion Airport during the weekend and declare their intention to visit "Palestine".

Israel responded by deploying hundreds of security personnel to the airport to help deport arriving activists and pressuring European carriers to hand over passenger manifests and prevent suspected activists from flying into the country.

The activists' plans were quashed, with more than 120 detained at the airport and many more denied boarding their Tel Aviv-bound flights.

Those held at the airport would be deported within the next "24 to 48 hours", a police spokesman said last night.

Only weeks earlier, Israel faced another news frenzy surrounding hundreds of foreign activists who tried, and eventually failed, to sail into the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip from Greece. The participants were branded by Israel's military as radicals possibly carrying lethal chemical agents on their ships.

Flotilla organisers, calling themselves peaceful, replied with headline-grabbing accusations that Israel had sabotaged their boats.

Writing in Israel's Yediot Ahronot daily last week, Haim Zisovitch, the head of the communication unit at Bar Ilan University's School of Communication, compared Israel's response to a wayward "child who was late to come home at night, and in order not to alert his sleeping parents used drums and trumpets to cover up the sound of his steps".

Some see this as not only a publicity success for activists, but also the issues they intended to highlight.

"How would we know what's going on in Gaza without them?" Micha Kurz, an Israeli activists and co-director of Grassroots Jerusalem, said in reference to Israel's blockade of the Palestinian territory. "Palestinians have been saying these things for generations, but it's these internationals who are putting the issue on the map."

At the core of the foreigner-staged demonstrations is mounting frustration over years of failed Israel-Palestinian peace talks and revolutionary fervour sweeping the region, said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian analyst who lives in Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan. These kind of demonstrations will continue because they are seen as the only viable alternative to governments that are unable to get the peace process moving, he said.

"If the Israeli rejectionism [in the peace process] continues, and if the Palestinians don't fall back to violent means, this will happen more and more," he said.

A continuation of such activism is poised to produce more diplomatic and political headaches not only for Israel, but also for friendly foreign governments that Israel relies upon to help scuttle these demonstrations.

But there is only so much support they can lend Israel in restraining their own citizens before it becomes a political liability, said Mr Kuttab. Governments may start thinking twice about thwarting the actions of registered voters against Israeli policies that are already unpopular at an international level.

"The public at large," said Mr Kuttab, referring to American and European citizens, "are unhappy with the positions of their own governments on this issue and are using these means [of protest] to make that known."

"Eventually," he concluded, "Israel's credit will run out."

Foreign nationals have long participated in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, providing support for campaigns to promote sanctions on Israel and its occupation of lands that Palestinians want for a future state.

Participation in grassroots Palestinian demonstrations against Israel's separation barrier, for example, have grabbed international media attention.

But those attempts have historically failed to gain much traction.

Aluf Benn of the Israeli daily Haaretz wrote on Thursday that the Gaza flotilla failure was an example of traditional state-on-state diplomacy triumphing "over Facebook and the non-profit organisations, at least until the next round".

He wrote: "This tactic has succeeded, at least for now, and reinforced the old order."

But others doubt such success can last under current political circumstances.

Providing motivation for future demonstrations are the examples set by regional uprisings as well as peaceful Palestinian efforts to bring themselves international legitimacy, said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician. The latter is embodied in a bid by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, to win UN recognition of a Palestinian state in September.

"I think all it's part of a larger picture, including the new Arab Spring, including a new policy by the Palestinian leadership and a new path of non-violent resistance," she said.

"The thing is, governments need to understand that these people are very unhappy with Israeli policies, and now they're doing something about it."