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Israel starts expulsion of 'flytilla' activists after airport detentions

Hugh Naylor (Foreign Correspondent)

Jul 11, 2011

The National

JERUSALEM // Israel yesterday expelled 36 of the 130 activists arrested in a largely thwarted attempted mass fly-in of Palestinian supporters during the weekend.

Sabine Haddad, the Israeli interior ministry spokeswoman, said yesterday that, depending on the timetables and booking capacity of airlines, the expulsion of the mainly European nationals to their home countries would conclude in 72 hours.

They were arrested for taking part along with hundreds of other pro-Palestinian activists, calling themselves the "Welcome to Palestine" group, in a plan to fly to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport and express their solidarity with Palestinians.

After their detainment at the airport, they have been moved to Beersheva's Ela prison, in southern Israel, and to another prison between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Ms Haddad stressed, however, that officials intended "to fly them all out as quickly as possible, not to hold them".

Those expelled yesterday were 22 Belgians, 13 Germans and a man from Spain, of which, she said, 35 had left "on a Lufthansa flight and one person is going on an Alitalia flight".

Israeli officials have cautioned that they are not technically deporting the activists, but, rather, repatriating them, while saying they will not be punished. However, some activists claim Israeli authorities have banned them from returning for a decade.

Israel has had to brace recently for a series of pro-Palestinian publicity stunts staged by foreign nationals. Still reeling from the fallout after a raid by its military on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip last year, which killed nine Turkish activists, Israeli officials have been handling such matters with additional caution.

Weeks before the "flytilla", American and European activists attempted to sail again to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

This time, the plans were scuttled by a combination of intensive Israeli diplomacy and, according to activists, underhand measures that included sabotaging their boats.

Last weekend's fly-in saw similar preventive measures.

Hundreds of Israeli security personnel were called up to monitor passenger arrivals, according to local media reports.

Authorities also sent foreign airlines operating out of Europe a list of passengers banned from travelling into Israel, which resulted in as many as 200 activists denied boarding on their Tel Aviv-bound flights.

The Associated Press reported that only 20 of the 340 activists who appeared on the so-called blacklist actually arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport.

Ilana Stein, a spokeswoman for Israel's foreign ministry, said the interior and transportation ministries compiled the list, which was given to foreign airlines, using only "open sources" such as social networking sites.

"The information gathered from the internet and social networks was about people who stated that their intention was to have a confrontation with our security personnel, to make problems for law and order and with the authorities," she said.

She said people on Israel's no-fly list were those authorities thought were "going to make trouble, if the person's a criminal, a terrorist".

But activists have denied any intentions other than non-violent displays of support for Palestinians.

Sergio Yahni, an Israeli organiser of the Welcome to Palestine initiative, said: "All the media attention was because of the hysterical reaction by the prime minister and the police, as if we're a danger to Israel." Mr Yahni said that the thrust of the plan was to declare an intention to visit Palestinian areas to airport authorities.

Some also criticised Israel for using the flytilla as a pretext to round up as many incoming activists involved in organisations that support Palestinians.

Itay Epshtain, co-director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, said two volunteers for his organisation were denied entry into Israel during the weekend even though they were not participating in the Welcome to Palestine event. They were instead planning to help rebuild a Palestinian home that was demolished by Israeli authorities several years ago.

"This just serves as an excuse for Israel to sever ties between international civil society and the Palestinians," he said.

Mr Epshtain said one of the volunteers, from Finland, was stopped at Ben Gurion International Airport and forced by security personnel to show them his Facebook account.

He said that when "they found indications that he was a pro-Palestinian activist, even though he was anything but violent, he was denied entry into Israel, banned here for 10 years and then flown back to Finland."