JERUSALEM — That “Welcome to Palestine” isn’t ‘Welcomed to Israel’ couldn’t be clearer. Wishing to land in Israel and to protest the 45-year occupation of Palestine in Bethlehem, most ‘Fly-tilla’ activists were treated by Israel’s authorities as a “strategic menace,” questioned, interned and deported.
|Israeli police escort a pro-Palestinian Israeli activist at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv April 15, 2012. Hundreds of police officers were deployed in and around Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, as a pro-Palestinian "fly-in" to Tel Aviv got off to a slow start on Sunday after Israel scrambled to block activists from boarding flights in Europe.|
Hundreds of immigration law and police enforcers in civilian clothing were deployed at the Ben-Gurion International Airport to repel dozens of pro-Palestinian international activists who’d managed to board planes. Criminal – not political – affairs reporters covered the event in the mainstream media.
General Security Service agents scouted for potential activists in social networks announcing the solidarity happening dubbed “Welcome to Palestine.” They drew a list of prominent activists whom they suspected would attempt to enter the country over the weekend.
The list was then included in a communiqué drafted by the Interior Ministry's Population and Immigration Authority which demanded that commercial airlines prevent the boarding of designated ‘personae non gratae’.
“A failure to uphold this directive is liable to lead to leveling of sanctions,” the notice threatened. The airlines complied: over 60 percent of the 1,500 activists due to reach Israel were stopped before departure.
“In light of statements by radical pro-Palestinian activists indicating that they intend (...) to disturb the peace (...), it has been decided to forbid their entrance, in accordance (...) to the Law of Entry into Israel,” the statement read.
As Israel retains full control of all its air, land or sea ‘borders’ – be they internationally-recognized or illegitimate because of the occupation – the airport remains the main gateway to both Israel and the tightly-controlled Palestinian territories.
No one enters or leaves the West Bank or the Gaza Strip without permission. Most Palestinians simply can’t cross into Israel proper; they’re deterred by an increasingly elaborate bureaucratic regime of permits and invasive checks.
Regular tourists visit Palestine. Away from Israeli population centers, they don’t constitute a “security threat,” When they return to Israel, however, or cross Israeli-controlled areas (settlements and settlers’ roads), they are sometimes upheld at checkpoints and questioned. Visitors who board planes to, or from, Israel often complain about intrusive interviews and body-checks.
Though foreign activists stressed that their sole intent was to travel to Bethlehem – a mere one-and-a-half hour drive from the airport by buses facilitated by local NGOs – and that theirs is a legitimate protest, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch declared dismissively, “These are leftists, anarchists who want to cause disruptions. Let them protest legitimately at their place of residence.”
The ‘Fly-tilla’ organizers countered that the purpose of the airlift is symbolic, humanitarian and pacifist: to help Palestinians – in restoring water wells and an international school; in building a Palestinian refugees’ museum in a refugee camp; and, in planting trees.
As part of lessons drawn from the “Peace Flotilla” against the maritime blockade on Gaza (May 2010) during which nine activists were killed in a botched assault by navy commandos, Israel invested considerable effort in thwarting a commemoration flotilla last May, and was successful.
In July, during a similar “Peace Fly-tilla,” over 300 international activists landed in Israel; 127 were intercepted and swiftly expedited to their home country. On Sunday, only a handful of political tourists who’d pledged that they’d abide to the law were allowed in. They were required to behave like regular tourists.
“This blockade of visitors is a breach of the fourth Geneva Convention,” denounced a protestor.
With respect to humanitarian law, the Israeli official position is zealously didactic. Palestinian territories within the pre-June 1967 ‘borders’ (West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem) were not “conquered” but “captured” during a “defensive war;” should be considered not “occupied.” but “administered” and “disputed.”
The rationale is that prior to the 1967 War these lands were not defined as Palestinian per se but fell under Jordanian and Egyptian rule. (Both countries have since renounced all claims on the West Bank and Gaza).
Thus for instance, the article of the fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949), which prohibits the settlement by the occupying power of its own population on occupied territory, is unsuitable to the Israeli-Palestinian context, Israel says.
Israeli civil society activists retort that if their government felt comfortable with the legality of the occupation, it would act differently.
Another edifying proposition was displayed by a prominent opinion-maker of the center-right daily Ma’ariv: “These so-called ‘pro-Palestinian’ activists are in fact anti-Palestinian for they encourage Palestinians to reject any compromise with Israel, and thus prolong the occupation,” argued Dror Ben- Yemini.
A letter entitled "Welcome to Israel" drafted by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was handed to the flying-in-and-out protestors. It sarcastically “thanks” the “dear activist” for “choosing” to make Israel the object of their “humanitarian concerns.”
"We know there were many other worthy choices," it notes, listing Syria, Iran and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip as other potential destinations, and reiterates the old argument that “Israel is the Middle East's sole democracy where (...) human rights organizations can operate freely.”
The leaflet then advises activists to “first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us (their) experience,” and wishes them “a nice flight.”
Israeli peace activist Michael Warshawski pointed out that those who protest Israel’s occupation also protest against Syria and other non-democratic regimes. “Whether Israel successfully prevents us from physically reaching out to Palestinians, we’ve reached our goal – the international struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine shall not be forsaken.”
Last week, Nobel Prize novelist Günter Grass was declared “persona non grata” because a poem he’d written in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung was deemed anti-Israeli. Peace activists hope that Israel will eventually be de-legitimized as ‘civitas non grata’, ‘an unwelcome state’, as a result of being the "longest occupying state.”