Banned from visiting Palestine

April 23, 2012

Laura Durkay reports on the action by Welcome to Palestine 2012 activists who were blocked by the Israeli government from traveling to Bethlehem.

LAST WEEK, I joined over 1,000 international activists scheduled to fly to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport as part of Welcome to Palestine 2012, a campaign of peaceful travel and solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank.

We had a simple plan: we would fly to Tel Aviv en masse and plainly and openly state our intention to travel to Bethlehem and visit Palestinians. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government had other ideas.

As those of us who participated learned last year, merely uttering the word "Palestine" inside Ben Gurion Airport is enough to send Israeli security into apoplectic fits.

Bethlehem is located in Area A of the West Bank, supposedly under full Palestinian Authority control. But there is no way to reach Bethlehem or any other part of the West Bank without passing through an Israeli-controlled border.

Since travelers who reveal plans to travel to Palestinian areas are frequently denied entry or deported by the Israeli government, the common practice is to lie or simply omit those portions of your itinerary. Welcome to Palestine participants elected to tell the truth, and this simple, radical act was enough to expose the reality of Israel's siege of the West Bank for all to see.

Police arrest activists at Ben Gurion Airport as they attempt to greet participants in Welcome to Palestine
Police arrest activists at Ben Gurion Airport as they attempt to greet participants in Welcome to Palestine

LAST YEAR'S Welcome to Palestine campaign had about 500 participants. Hundreds were denied boarding at airports in Europe, as airlines complied with Israeli orders not to allow peaceful activists on board. I was one of approximately 120 people to reach Tel Aviv. For merely stating our intent to travel to Bethlehem, we received four days in prison, followed by deportation.

Welcome to Palestine 2011 was a huge story in European media outlets, and when the 2012 campaign was announced, two to three times as many people signed up to participate.

Once again, the Israeli government did everything in its power to prevent activists from reaching Tel Aviv. The hysteria in the Israeli media reached a fever pitch. Peaceful activists were denounced as "provocateurs," and Israeli newspapers bragged about the 650 extra police who had been dispatched to the airport to protect Israel from the hordes of dangerous teachers, nurses and retirees who were scheduled to arrive.

The Netanyahu government even issued a sarcastic letter suggesting activists "first solve the real problems in the region"--which, of course, are located in Syria and Iran--before protesting Israel.

The Israeli secret police, with the help of British Zionists, including an employee of the Jewish National Fund, sent a McCarthy-esque blacklist of 1,200 names to over 20 European airlines, informing them that they would face unspecified fines and sanctions if they flew any of the banned activists to Israel.

While the blacklist named hundreds of Welcome to Palestine participants, it also included dozens of names of Palestine solidarity activists who were not planning to fly as part of Welcome to Palestine, and an estimated 470 names with no demonstrated connection to any Palestine solidarity activism--including a French diplomat and his wife, a Dutch executive from the pharmaceutical corporation Merck, and several Jewish Israeli citizens.

Hundreds of activists, myself included, were informed by their airlines that Israel had denied them entry, and their tickets had been summarily canceled. Others received no advance notification from the airline, but were turned away at the check-in desk, stopped by security just before boarding, or even pulled off planes that were about to take off.

On one Air France flight, security staff went above and beyond the call of duty by singling out a young woman who was already on board the plane, asking her if she was either Israeli or Jewish, and removing her when she said she was not.

At Manchester Airport on Sunday, April 15, blacklisted activists from the U.S./UK delegation held a spirited protest at the check-in desk of Jet2, the budget airline that had canceled our tickets. Jet2 had initially sent us a dismissive e-mail stating that it was a "no refunds" airline, and the circumstances of our denial of boarding were "totally beyond [its] control."

After an hour of noisy protest, the airline mysteriously decided to re-evaluate their decision and issue refunds to the blacklisted travelers--a small victory, to be sure, but one that would not have happened without protest. Meanwhile, 11 Welcome to Palestine participants who were not on the blacklist quietly checked in and successfully boarded the plane to Tel Aviv.

THOSE ACTIVISTS who did reach Ben Gurion Airport met a massive security presence. One person from the UK delegation, selected apparently at random, was quickly separated from the group and forced back onto the same plane he had arrived on, which was headed back to the UK.

As soon as they identified themselves as traveling to Bethlehem, the other participants were rounded up at passport control and whisked off to Givon Detention Center, an immigration detention center in Ramle, a few miles from Tel Aviv. As with last year's campaign, they would be detained and deported without charges or trial.

Upon arriving in prison, many members of the French and UK delegations immediately began refusing food in protest of their detention and in solidarity with the mass hunger strike that Palestinian prisoners were expected to begin on April 17, Palestinian Prisoners Day.

On April 17, 3,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails--nearly three-quarters of Palestinian political prisoners--refused food in a one-day hunger strike. Some 1,200 of those prisoners launched an indefinite hunger strike. Their demands included better treatment in prison and an end to administrative detention--an Israeli practice left over from British colonial rule, in which prisoners can be detained indefinitely without charges or trial.

They joined 10 prisoners already on hunger strike, four of whom have gone for more than 40 days without food. The mass hunger strike was inspired by two recent, high-profile and successful hunger strikes of Palestinians in administrative detention: Khader Adnan, who was released after 66 days on hunger strike, and Hana Shalabi, who was released after 43 days, but exiled to Gaza, instead of returned to her family in the West Bank.

Back in Glasgow, Scotland, university students marked the day with a march and a brief occupation of the Glasgow BBC offices, demanding that the BBC end its media blackout about the Palestinian hunger strikers.

By Thursday night, at least 79 people had been arrested and deported from Ben Gurion Airport. Many in the UK delegation refused food for the full five days of their detention. When they explained their situation to the staff on their Jet2 deportation flight, some flight attendants donated their personal meals for detainees to break their fast.

The Israeli government may consider its response to Welcome to Palestine a victory, since it successfully prevented all but a handful of activists from reaching the West Bank.

But the fallout is already reaching European airports. On Thursday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Stockholm Airport had become the third European airport to ban an Israeli airline from its terminals, because Israeli-owned airlines had its own security personnel who employ naked racial profiling when screening passengers.

While the Israeli government most likely won't have to worry about its supply of weapons and aid from the U.S. government any time soon, it depends heavily on connections with Europe for trade, tourism and cultural exchange. Public opinion in Europe is already more favorable to the Palestinian cause than in the U.S., and Europeans have just witnessed Israeli checkpoints being set up in Paris, Brussels and Manchester, England.

A movement to expose Israeli "security" procedures for what they are--racial profiling and apartheid--and get Israeli airlines kicked out of airports across Europe could have a serious economic and political impact.

Activists who participated in Welcome to Palestine are already discussing next steps--from boycott campaigns in their home countries to future attempts to travel to Palestine. While the Israeli government continues to criminalize solidarity with and even travel to Palestine, the movement to dismantle Israeli apartheid is only growing stronger across Europe and around the world.

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