Added by Nigel Shelbourne on April 15, 2012
Hundreds of police were on the lookout for pro-Palestinian activists flying in to Israel’s main airport on Sunday, as Europe’s main airlines faced passenger fury after cancelling scores of tickets.
By early afternoon, there was little visible movement inside Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, although police said they had detained nine passengers for questioning on suspicion of being part of the “Welcome to Palestine” fly-in campaign, better known as the “flytilla.”
Six of them were to be deported, while another three were granted permission to stay, said police spokeswoman Luba Samri.
Organisers of the campaign, now in its third year, had been expecting to welcome up to 1,500 people, more than a third of them from France.
But Israel vowed to prevent their entry, warning foreign airlines they would be forced to foot the bill for the activists’ immediate return home in a move which saw many carriers toeing the line, prompting a furious response from passengers.
Throughout the morning, scores of angry activists staged angry demonstrations at airports in several European capitals after being prevented from boarding flights for which they had bought tickets.
At Brussels airport, at least 120 passengers demonstrated after a number of them were barred from flying to Tel Aviv, with police arresting three for disturbing the peace.
Activists said at least 60 Belgian and 40 French citizens were unable to fly despite having tickets. Most of them had been due to fly with Brussels Airlines, while the rest were supposed to travel with Lufthansa and Swiss Air.
Several dozen people also protested at Geneva airport where activists said around 30 people had been prevented from boarding an early morning flight.
A similar number protested at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris after being stopped from boarding Lufthansa and Swiss Air flights for Tel Aviv.
And in Rome, seven Italian activists were prevented from boarding an Alitalia flight, press reports said.
French carrier Air France and British low-fares airline Jet2.com also said they had cancelled an unspecified number of passengers’ tickets to Tel Aviv.
Despite the success of its diplomatic campaign to pressure European carriers not to allow activists to board flights bound for Tel Aviv, Israel was taking no chances and deployed hundreds of police at its main international airport.
Israeli public radio said that more than 650 undercover police were in place, with orders to “exercise restraint, but to intercept any troublemakers.”
By the early afternoon, police had detained nine people for questioning, with three French nationals granted permission to enter Israel and another six people slated for deportation.
Of that number, four were Frenchwomen who had arrived on a flight from Switzerland, one was a Portuguese activist who flew in from Amman with Royal Jordanian Airlines, and one was a Canadian who had travelled from America on United Airlines.
Organisers of “Welcome to Palestine” say the campaign aims to expose Israel’s control of movement both into and out of the occupied territories.
Last year, around 800 people tried to join the campaign, with many blocked from flying by airlines. Another 120 were denied entry by Israel and deported.
Israel’s hawkish deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon said the Jewish state’s attempts to prevent the campaign had succeeded.
“We have prevented harm to Israel’s sovereignty and also to Israel’s image. The main aim is to prevent violent images and provocations,” he told army radio.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday advised activists to concentrate on solving “real problems” in the region, such as Syria and Iran.
“We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns,” he said in a statement released by his office.
“We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience,” Netanyahu said.