Israel deploys airport police to screen activists

July 7, 2011 - 10:14 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinians

Israeli police officers stand at the arrival hall at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv , Israel, Wednesday, July 6, 2011 . Israeli police said Wednesday they would reinforce security at the country's already heavily fortified international airport before hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists arrive this week. Israeli officials say the activists, due to land on Friday at the Ben-Gurion International Airport, are coming spoiling for a fight. The protesters accuse Israel of distorting their message, insisting their activities would be  peaceful. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel deployed hundreds of extra police at its already heavily guarded international airport Thursday and asked European airlines to bar potential troublemakers from Tel Aviv-bound flights in anticipation of the arrival of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists.

In Paris, eight activists were blocked from boarding a Malev Airlines flight Thursday. One of those turned away, Philippe Arnaud, said Malev showed him a list provided by Israeli authorities of nearly 400 people being barred from Israel. German carriers Lufthansa and Air Berlin said they also received lists.

The activists, expected to arrive in Israel late Thursday and Friday, say they are on a peaceful mission to the West Bank to draw attention to the plight of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Israel holds complete control over who enters and exits the West Bank.

But Israel has been wary of entanglement with foreign activists since Israeli naval commandos clashed with passengers aboard an international Gaza-bound flotilla last year, killing nine people. Israeli concerns were further heightened by deadly clashes in recent weeks with pro-Palestinian activists along its frontiers with Lebanon and Syria.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said officers deployed at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport have been prepared to deal with scenarios ranging from uneventful landings to airport officials being attacked.

Israel is known for its strict airline security, beginning with check-ins on incoming flights, and officials claim they have sophisticated intelligence procedures in place to identify potential troublemakers. It's unclear how many activists would be denied entry after landing at the airport.

Israel says it will not stop people because of their political beliefs, but that its only concern is to stop people who plan to carry out illegal or violent acts.

Rosenfeld said airport facilities could hold as many as 80 detainees, and that any overflow would be sent to a prison in southern Israel.

The airborne activists, meanwhile, have denied any direct connection with the latest attempt to breach the Gaza blockade, which appears to have largely fizzled in recent days. The flotilla ships were held up by mysterious malfunctions and Greek authorities who did not let them set sail from ports in Greece where the ships had mustered.

Organizers of the flights to Tel Aviv say their people will tour the West Bank in solidarity with the Palestinians and that some would take part in weekly protests against Israel in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. They say all their activities will be nonviolent.

In Europe, German federal police said as long as passengers had valid tickets and passports, they had no grounds to stop any activists at airports there.

Two German airlines, flagship carrier Lufthansa and Air Berlin, said Thursday they received lists of people from Israel who are not allowed into the country.

Lufthansa said it would comply. Lufthansa "is obliged not to transport any passengers who do not hold valid entry permits or whose entry into the respective state has been denied by local authorities beforehand as in this case," company spokesman Patrick Meschenmoser said Thursday. He declined to say how many passengers were on the list, or whether any of them had planned to fly with the airline.

German authorities also said that German citizens of Palestinian descent would not be allowed into Israel. The vast majority of Palestinians are barred from using Israel's airport.

Arnaud, the activist turned away in Paris, has led calls to boycott Israeli products in France. He said Malev refused to let him and seven others board at Charles de Gaulle Airport. "They showed us a letter from the (Israeli) interior ministry with a list of nearly 400 people, with names ... saying to bar us from traveling to Israel," he said by telephone from the Paris airport.

The French airport authority wouldn't comment on the incident, and Malev Airlines officials in Paris could not be reached.

In London, Britain's Foreign Office said it had not been asked by Israel to prevent anyone from boarding flights to Israel.

The prospect of an influx of pro-Palestinian sympathizers has agitated Israel. The Israeli public security minister claimed some of the potential arrivals were "hooligans," and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a show of reviewing security agencies' plans at the airport before flying to Romania on Wednesday.

The "Welcome to Palestine" movement has estimated that between 500 and 700 people would arrive on flights over the weekend. It accused Israeli authorities of badly overreacting, noting that there are strict security procedures before boarding the plane.

"This is a total circus by the Israeli authorities, who are painting us as criminals," said French activist Olivia Zemor.

She said some 300 of the 600 activists planning to go to Tel Aviv and then the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem are French, aged between 9 and 85.

Some Israeli critics accused officials of appearing unnecessarily hysterical and painting the country as a police state.

"The State of Israel has lost its senses," columnist Eitan Haber wrote in Thursday's Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "We are playing right into the hands of a few bands of troublemakers who are successfully trying to make Israel look bad around the world?"

Israel's Tourism Ministry, anticipating possible inconveniences or delays at the airport, said it would greet incoming visitors over the weekend with flowers.

"We need to maintain a sense of normality at the airport, sending out a message to the international press that Israel is a safe country and an attractive tourism destination," said tourist minister, Stas Misezhnikov.

At any given time, hundreds of foreigners, many of them aid workers or activists, are in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Israel says it has the right to determine who passes through its borders and routinely denies entry to people of Palestinian origin and their foreign supporters, including high-profile academics like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein.

The only way to get to the West Bank is through Israel-controlled crossings — either by arriving at Ben-Gurion and driving to the West Bank, or from Jordan, by passing through the Israeli-controlled crossing on the Jordan-West Bank border.

Access to blockaded Gaza, run by the militant Hamas group, is even more difficult. Israel allows few people to cross its border with Gaza. And with few exceptions, Gazans can only travel abroad by crossing into Egypt through their shared border.

During a visit Thursday to Bulgaria, Netanyahu said Israel would exercise the "basic right" that every country has to block provocateurs from entering.

"We have a restrained resolve to deal with provocations, to prevent disruptions of the public order," Netanyahu said.