JERUSALEM — Israel deployed hundreds of police Sunday at its main airport to detain activists flying in to protest the country's occupation of Palestinian areas in defiance of vigorous Israeli government efforts to block their arrival.
At mid-afternoon, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a total of 27 activists had landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport. All were denied entry and were to be placed on return flights, he said. Hundreds more were expected throughout the day.
Four Israeli supporters of the fly-in were arrested for causing a disturbance at the main airport terminal after unfurling a banner bearing the protest's theme, "Welcome to Palestine," Rosenfeld said.
Israel is jittery about the prospect of large numbers of protesters arriving because of deadly confrontations with pro-Palestinian activists in the past, notably a naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010. The activists participating in the fly-in say all planned activities, such as planting trees in the West Bank, are non-violent and accuse Israel of being unnecessarily heavyhanded.
The effect of the protest was diluted by airlines that canceled the reservations of at least 100 known activists, and perhaps hundreds more, under pressure from Israel.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said Israel had sent a list of suspected activists to international airlines, asking the carriers to block them from boarding Israel-bound flights. It warned the airlines they would have to cover the cost of the activists' return flights, and threatened unspecified sanctions on airlines if they did not comply, she said.
One of the protest's organizers, Amira Mussalam, said that as of midday, no activists had managed to get out of the airport and make their way to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the government "will make sure that everyone who wants to provoke is returned home and the rest will be allowed to enter Israel."
Activists who had been barred from flying to Tel Aviv from airports in Paris and Brussels staged impromptu protests, and Israel Radio reported that activists in Geneva had their passports confiscated.
The protest is meant to draw attention to how Israel controls access into Palestinian areas. The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, all captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for their future state.
Visitors can only reach the West Bank through Israeli-controlled land crossings or Israeli airports, though at any given time, hundreds of foreigners, including activists, are in the territory, which Israel captured in 1967.
Travelers headed for Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank often report being detained and questioned, sometimes for hours, by Israeli border authorities.
As a result, some lie about their intended destination within the West Bank, where 300,000 Jews live in more than 120 settlements alongside 2.4 million Palestinians.
Mussalam, the organizer, said participants were told not to hide their intentions. "The aim of 'Welcome to Palestine' is when we have guests coming to Palestine — to Ramallah, Hebron, to Bethlehem, they should be able to say we are going to Palestine and not to lie," Mussalam said.
Israel restricts access to the border crossing with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers. Some 1.6 million Palestinians live there.
Last July, Israel blocked a similar fly-in effort by preventing dozens from boarding Tel Aviv-bound flights in Europe and denying entry to 69.
Asked why Israeli authorities consider this particular group of activists a threat, police spokesman Rosenfeld replied that they have "security backgrounds" or were "involved previously in different activities," including "security issues concerning Israel."1 comment on this story
He would not elaborate.
Some Israelis accused the government of overreacting to the activists' campaign.
"Instead of waiting to present the crackpot activists with flowers, putting them on buses and leading them directly to their destination in Bethlehem, the heads of the defense establishment and security forces have once again lost their minds," columnist Eitan Haber wrote in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "We are only goading the plotters into planning actions that the state of Israel has no response to."