Israel detained dozens of pro-Palestinian activists yesterday at its main airport and deterred hundreds more from boarding flights to Israel in a security operation ridiculed by domestic media as excessive.
In the second mass event protesting Israel's policies towards Palestinians in as many weeks, up to 800 rights campaigners had hoped to land in Tel Aviv yesterday and declare their intention to travel to the occupied West Bank to try to expose Israeli restrictions on access to the Palestinian territory.
Israel largely thwarted those plans after issuing foreign airlines with a blacklist of more than 340 people compiled from social media sites. It urged the airlines to prevent the activists from boarding, warning them that they would bear the cost of flying them back. Most of those who did make it onto their flights – at least 55 – were stopped at Israeli immigration and faced deportation.
Accused of being ill-prepared for protests on its borders that have previously ended in embarrassment for Israel, the Jewish State was in no mood to treat the so-called "flytilla" lightly, and officials drafted in hundreds of extra police to bolster security at one of the world's most fortified airports.
On the eve of an overseas trip, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the activists were "provocateurs" intending to cause disturbances. The activists, many of them elderly, responded by saying they were coming in peace to visit Palestinian families and show solidarity.
In European airports – particularly Charles de Gaulle in Paris – activists barred from boarding their flights held spontaneous protests, shouting "Boycott Israel" and accusing the airlines of bowing to Israel's demands.
"I am absolutely shocked that it is possible that I am being blacklisted without any evidence that I have done anything," Cynthia Beat, a passenger turned away from her flight in Berlin, told Reuters. "Apparently, it is sufficient to state that you would like to go to Palestine, to spend time with Palestinians, in order to be banned from Israel."
Although thousands of tourists visit the West Bank every year, pro-Palestinian activists are often advised to conceal the purpose of their visit to avoid being turned back by Israel.
While the operation appeared a success from Israel's point of view, it was criticised by domestic commentators, who accused the government of overreacting to perceived threats. "How does it happen that once again we are playing right into the hands of a few bands of miscreants who are trying – and succeeding – in making Israel look bad around the world?" asked the best-selling Yedioth Ahronot newspaper.
Israel's global image has appeared increasingly battered since Israeli commandoes stormed a flotilla bound for Gaza last May, killing nine Turkish activists, and dealing a near-fatal blow to Turkish-Israeli relations. The international community condemned Israel for using disproportionate force and pressured Israel to ease its four-year blockade of Gaza, aimed at weakening Islamist group Hamas.
But the blockade is still in force, with the ban on exports preventing a recovery of the economy, and most of the 1.6 million Palestinians living there being confined to the tiny enclave.