Dozens of pro-Palestinian activists detained at Israeli airport

Arrests at Ben Gurion airport

This post has been updated. See the note below.

JERUSALEM -- Israel on Sunday detained 43 international activists when they tried to enter the country as part of a pro-Palestinian demonstration that organizers billed as a "fly-in" to draw attention to the occupation of the West Bank.

Most of the "Welcome to Palestine" activists, including some from the U.S. and several European countries, were being held in a facility awaiting deportation, an Israeli police spokesman said. Though more activists were expected Sunday evening, the numbers fell short of the hundreds that organizers predicted would swarm Israel’s airport.

But as occurred last year when a similar event took place, much of the protest was scuttled before it began. Israel last week sent lists of names of international activists to major European airlines and told them the individuals were not to be permitted into the country. Israeli officials told the airlines that they would be required to cover the cost of returning the activists to home countries and could incur additional fines.

In response, airlines such as Lufthansa, Air France and EasyJet notified scores of activists in recent days that their reservations had been canceled at the demand of the Israeli government.

Small but noisy protests took place at some European airports Sunday. Activists said they were prevented from boarding planes in Germany, France, Switzerland and Belgium.

As they did last year, security officials at Ben Gurion International Airport diverted flights they believed were carrying activists and held those on board at a separate terminal away from other passengers. More than 650 police were dispatched to the airport to prevent any protests or disturbances.

Activists said some participants were permitted into the country only after signing documents promising they would not participate in any "pro-Palestinian activities."

Despite Israel’s efforts, some activists made it through, according to organizers. They were joined by Israeli and Palestinians protesters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem for a rally.

In the end, the biggest scuffles occurred online and in dueling news releases, as both sides traded barbs and accusations across social media sites.

Activists said Israel’s refusal to allow them into the country to stage what they said would be nonviolent pro-Palestinian demonstrations raised questions about Israel's claims to be the Middle East's only democracy. They also said Israel's occupation of the West Bank violates international law.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with a sarcastically worded letter that was given to arriving activists.

"We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns," the letter read. "We know there were many other worthy causes." The letter went on to chastise protesters for focusing on Israel rather than the violent crackdown in Syria.

Though some in Israel accused the government of overreacting and thus drawing more publicity to the protest, Israel defended its actions as necessary.

In 2010, Israel's military was caught unprepared when international activists aboard a Gaza-bound protest ship violently resisted takeover by Israeli commandos. During the high-seas standoff, Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists, including one with U.S. citizenship.

Israel's left-leaning lawmakers and pundits said banning entry to international activists would backfire by tarnishing the country's image.

"Israeli government spokesmen are using the Welcome to Palestine operation in their campaign against the 'delegitimization of Israel,' " Haaretz newspaper wrote Sunday in its editorial. "It's a shame they don't understand that their refusal to allow the human rights activists into the West Bank illustrates more than anything the occupation's lack of legitimacy."

[Updated 11:35 a.m. April 15: Separately Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces said it was investigating an incident Saturday in which an Israeli army officer struck an international activist in the face with a rifle, knocking the man off his feet.

Video of the incident was posted by the pro-Palestinian group International Solidarity Movement, which said it took place during a bike ride by 250 activists through the Jordan Valley that was halted by Israeli soldiers. The army described the incident as “grave.”]

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--Edmund Sanders

Photo: Israeli police arrest an Israeli left-wing activist at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Sunday as hundreds of officers, many undercover, were stationed at there to block the arrival of pro-Palestinian activists taking part in a "Welcome to Palestine" fly-in. Credit: Jack Guez / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

 
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