Israel braces for Easter 'flytilla' to Palestine
Osman El Sharnoubi, Thursday 12 Apr 2012
Self-proclaimed Jewish state scrambles to pre-empt new international campaign launched in solidarity with Palestine


Israel is stepping up security at its Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv in advance of an international campaign launched in solidarity with Palestine, members of which are expected to arrive at the airport on the occasion of eastern orthodox Easter (15 April).

The "Welcome to Palestine 2012" initiative comprises some 1500 mainly Western-European supporters of the Palestinian cause who are intending to visit Palestine's Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The mission aims to openly challenge the Israeli siege of occupied Palestinian territories by visiting the West Bank and engaging in "peace-building" activities with the sponsorship of Palestinian NGOs.

"Welcome to Palestine 2012 will again challenge Israel's policy of isolating the West Bank while the settler paramilitaries and army commit brutal crimes against a virtually defenceless Palestinian civilian population," read a statement issued by campaign organisers.

It further called on national governments "to support the right of Palestinians to receive visitors and the right of their own citizens to visit Palestine openly." The letter was signed by prominent pro-Palestine figures, including American philosopher Noam Chomsky and renowned South African Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Israel's Ben Gurion Airport is now teeming with hundreds of plainclothes security personnel, while its exterior is flanked by Israeli Special Forces, Israeli daily Haaretz has reported.

According to officials cited by Haaretz, Israeli authorities are working to pre-empt any protests that might lead to a "public relations victory" for the activists, while trying to cause as little commotion as possible.

The planned "flytilla" is not the first of its kind. A similar one in 2010 saw 100 activists reach the West Bank, although a second attempt in July 2011 was largely hindered by Israeli security measures. About half of the latter campaign's 600 members were prevented from boarding flights in their home countries, while dozens of others were detained by Israeli authorities only to face subsequent deportation.

Members of the initiative were prevented from flying by airlines in France, Germany and Switzerland after being informed by Tel Aviv that they would be refused entry. Israel issued a blacklist of activists back then, and has reportedly issued another one this time around.

Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds has reported that Israel is adopting the same methods used in the past to prevent the entry of protesters, one of which has been to provide airlines and governments with blacklists.

Israel has contacted several governments and instructed them to discourage their citizens from participating in the campaign, Al-Quds reported, noting that some airlines had also been persuaded not to sell tickets to blacklisted activists.

France, for one, has cautioned over 500 of its citizens against travelling "because of the risks of expulsion or detention‎," AFP reported. The news agency added that French campaign organisers had condemned the government statement and insisted that the flytilla would go forward as planned.

The campaign has been met with considerable antagonism inside Israel. The Israeli Law Centre, for one, has voiced its staunch opposition to the project, with its director telling the Jerusalem Post that "no civilised country would permit … foreign nationals to enter its borders with the freely-stated purpose of violating state order, laws and legal provisions, or in order to promote an ideological position that challenges that state's sovereignty."

The leftist Gush Shalom movement, by contrast, saw the stepped-up security as a waste of taxpayer money. Movement spokesman Adam Keller acknowledged the right of those wishing to visit the West Bank to pass through passport control without harassment.

In a letter entitled "Mr. Minister, greet them with flowers!" addressed to Israeli Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Keller noted that activists would be "participating in laying the foundations of a new elementary school in the city, planting fruit trees, rehabilitating wells in villages in the area, and inaugurating a museum."

Due to the absence of a Palestinian alternative, Keller called on Aharonovitch to respect activists' right to enter the territory.

The "Welcome to Palestine" group has stated on its Twitter account that its "destination is Bethlehem to construct a school for children and build bridges of peace."

Those activists that managed to board their respective flights are expected to arrive in Tel Aviv on Sunday.

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