x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Israel intensifies security for 'flytilla' airport protests

Commentators say Israel is overreacting and giving 600 activists attention they want for planned demonstration at Ben Gurion airport to protest against routine deportation of passengers who openly say they will visit the Palestinian territory.

Israeli police officers stand guard at Ben Gurion international airport yesterday as hundreds of pro-Palestinian foreign activists planned to fly into Tel Aviv this week. Ariel Schalit / AP Photograph
Israeli police officers stand guard at Ben Gurion international airport yesterday as hundreds of pro-Palestinian foreign activists planned to fly into Tel Aviv this week. Ariel Schalit / AP Photograph

TEL AVIV // Israel began deploying more than 500 policemen and toughened security at its main airport yesterday as it prepared for possible clashes with the hundreds of activists due to arrive today to demonstrate against its treatment of the Palestinians.

More than 600 activists from the US and European countries, with more than half of them from France, are expected to take part in a demonstration at the airport near Tel Aviv in which they will declare Palestine or the Israeli-occupied West Bank as their destination upon landing in Israel. The activists said their aim is to protest against Israel's routine deportation of flight passengers who arrive in the country and openly say they will visit the Palestinian territory.

As of yesterday, Israel had already deported five activists who had flown in from France and Belgium, and it had handed foreign airlines a list of some 300 more people whom would be denied entry, Israeli media reported without citing a reason for the expulsion.

In Paris, eight pro-Palestinian activists were turned back late yesterday after a request from Israel as they tried to take a flight to Tel Aviv, according to a report.

"Their reservation was cancelled at the request of Israeli authorities who have drawn up a list of undesirable persons," the airport source said, adding that they were turned away when they tried to check in for their flight.

The campaign, officially called "Welcome to Palestine," is also being dubbed by some as the "flytilla", a reference to the flotilla of activists that has intended to sail to Gaza and break Israel's blockade of the tiny enclave, but which has been docked in Greek ports after Greece barred it last week from leaving.

Israel's frantic preparations are an indication that the country is concerned with facing unexpected violence that may spur a confrontation with its security forces and possible casualties.

Just this week, Israeli media quoted from two United Nations reports that have yet to be published and that condemn Israel for using excessive force in its handling of last year's raid on a Turkish-flagged ship headed to Gaza as well as the May 15 demonstration of Palestinian refugees on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Israeli police officials were quoted yesterday as pledging to expel all the participants of the protest once they arrive, regardless of their ages or nationalities. Israel appeared to spare no resources on suppressing the demonstration, setting up a special command centre at the airport that was occupied by police commanders and officials from the intelligence services, the interior and foreign ministries and immigration authorities. Additionally, local courts were ordered to increase the number of judges on duty over the weekend that would be able to handle a possibly large number of activists' detentions.

The government had also requested that foreign airlines present their passenger lists to Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency, and Israeli security personnel at European airports were instructed to report "suspicious-looking people," according to a report in the liberal Haaretz newspaper.

The report also said Israel was considering shifting arriving airplanes expected to include a large group of the protest's participants to a separate terminal and have them undergo more stringent security screenings.

Furthermore, a large number of the deployed police were instructed to dress in civilian clothes and avoid carrying weapons in the case that demonstrators would try to "provoke" them to use violence and then record it on mobile phones or video cameras to distribute over the internet, the Haaretz report said.

Some unidentified security officials told the newspaper that preparations were also in order for disaster scenerios such as if protesters try to set themselves on fire or attack Israeli passengers on their flights. Some commentators yesterday charged that Israel was overreacting to the so-called Flytilla and thereby drawing the activists the attention they had wanted for their cause. The headline on Yediot Ahronot, the country's best-selling newspaper, read: "We have gone off the rails."

Gideon Levy, a prominent commentator for Haaretz, cynically wrote in a front-page column that Israel was preparing for the airport event as if it was "the next existential threat." He added: "Israel is losing its senses … in its hysterical response, Israel is the one that is increasing the magnitude of this protest. Few people would have paid any attention to the demonstration had Israel not taken all the security precautions against it."

Lihi Rothschild, a left-wing Israeli activist who helped organise the demonstration, told the popular Ynet news Web site: "The only act of protest that these people plan to carry out is to say 'we came to visit Palestine,' but the state of Israel is preparing for it as if it were a declaration of war."

Activists and their supporters also told Israeli radio stations and newspapers in interviews that they were surprised by Israel's response to their campaign and pleased that it had attracted media attention.

Sergio Yahni, who helps run the Jerusalem-based Alternative Information Centre, which promotes Palestinian rights, told Ynet: "We have to thank Netanyahu. We would not have gotten so much attention even if we had spent thousands of shekels on hiring a public relations expert."

vbekker@thenational.ae