Jerusalem – As 60 percent of the international activists set to land at Ben Gurion airport Sunday had their plane tickets cancelled, organisers of the ‘Welcome to Palestine’ fly-in campaign condemned what they say is European complicity in Israel’s illegal restrictions on their right to travel freely.
“It’s a sign of capitulation and obedience to illegal orders from the Israeli government since European regulations state that people have the right to travel,” Nicolas Shahshahani, an organiser with a French delegation of approximately 500 people expected to arrive in Tel Aviv Sunday, told IPS.
German airline Lufthansa cancelled all flights from French airports into Tel Aviv scheduled for Sunday. Activists also reported that British airline Jet2.com, Air France and EasyJet had cancelled activists’ tickets, after Israel circulated a no-fly list and threatened legal action should the airlines transport the activists to Tel Aviv.
“The (Welcome to Palestine) delegates will (demonstrate) in large numbers (Sunday) with their friends in the French airports where they bought their tickets, in order to demand their fundamental right as citizens to travel freely and visit Palestinian friends that have invited them to Bethlehem,” Shahshahani said.
Up to 2,000 international Palestine solidarity activists had booked flights to Tel Aviv in order to spend a week volunteering and visiting different areas of the occupied West Bank, including Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah and the Jordan Valley. They planned to openly announce their intention to visit Palestinian areas upon arrival at the airport.
The activities – which include renovating a kindergarten, planting trees and repairing water wells – were organised at the behest of 25 local Palestinian civil society organisations.
“Our goal is to be visited as Palestinians,” Mazen Qumsiyeh, media coordinator of the Welcome to Palestine initiative told IPS. “Under occupation this need to be visited is even more (important). Even prisoners in prisons are entitled to visitors, so we are insisting on our right to be visited and the right for people to visit us freely.”
As of 10 am Sunday morning, the Israeli authorities had stopped a handful of international activists at Ben-Gurion airport, where the Israeli government had deployed 650 police and security officers.
“The Israeli government said that (the activists) are coming to cause trouble. This is a lie. We are continuing with our programme regardless of what happens and regardless of the number of people who get in,” Qumsiyeh added.
Last year, over 400 people were denied access to their flights to Tel Aviv from airports across Europe. Approximately 125 activists managed to make it to Ben Gurion airport, but most were interrogated, detained and deported after announcing their intention to visit Palestinian areas.
Israel controls all entry points into the West Bank and has erected nearly 100 checkpoints throughout the territory, that severely limit Palestinian freedom of movement. Israel also maintains a strict blockade and permit-pass system on Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip, and restricts nearly all outside access to the besieged territory.
All foreigners wishing to visit, work or volunteer in the Palestinian territories must pass through Israeli security checks in order to access the area, forcing most to lie or conceal their true intentions for being there.
“These policies serve to isolate the Palestinians from the rest of the world, and from international visitors. It affects the economy. It affects higher education. It affects, I think, all aspects of Palestinian life,” Sarah Anabtawi, coordinator of the Right to Enter campaign, which defends the rights of access, movement and residency in the occupied Palestinian territories, told IPS.
On Saturday, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office released a sarcastic letter, supposedly meant to be distributed to the activists upon their arrival in Tel Aviv, which suggested other places the activists could focus their human rights work, such as Syria, Iran or the Gaza Strip.
“You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent,” the letter reads, “but instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticises the government, (and) human rights organisations can operate freely.”
According to Mazen Qumsiyeh, Israel’s reaction to the fly-in highlights the Israeli government’s desire to limit peoples’ awareness of the situation in Palestine, and shield itself from international criticism and pressure.
“This is a hysterical reaction of a thief who doesn’t want to be exposed as a thief. They don’t want the world to know what’s happening here. They want to isolate us even more and prevent internationals from coming to Palestine to find out what’s going on,” Qumsiyeh said.
“It’s a confirmation that Israel isolates us and prevents us from having a normal life. (It’s) an apartheid state that doesn’t want the world to find out that it’s an apartheid state.”