‘Flytilla’ Debacle Another PR Nightmare For Israel

BEN GURION AIRPORT, Tel Aviv — Confused foreign tourists arriving at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport on Friday would be forgiven for thinking that a terrorist attack was about to take place.

Hundreds of armed Israeli soldiers and police spread throughout the airport as Israeli police surrounded six Israeli pro-Palestinian peace activists who were arrested for unfurling Palestinian flags and chanting pro-Palestinian slogans.

The police were later forced to physically protect the activists from a mob of angry Israelis in the airport who punched, cursed, and spat at them.

A war was under way, but one very different from that which the Jewish state is used to fighting, one that Israel is taking very seriously but that it appears to be losing — the PR struggle for international opinion as the world awaits a UN vote on Palestinian statehood in September.

Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from across Europe and North America decided to take part in the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign, coordinated between 15 Palestinian civil society organizations and supporters abroad.

The plan was to descend en masse at Ben Gurion and announce their intention to visit the occupied Palestinian territorie,s where they would then take part in various activities by the Palestinian organizations.

Due to Israeli restrictions Ben Gurion is the only international airport into Palestine. Foreigners who declare their intention to visit, volunteer, or work in the occupied territories upon arrival at the airport are routinely denied entrance and deported.

This time, the activists made no secret of their intentions to visit Palestine, and the Israelis reacted with preparations verging on the hysterical, according to several Israeli journalists and political analysts.

Amos Harel in the Israeli daily Haaretz said that the Israeli authorities’ reaction was “hysterical and disproportionate.”

“The fly-in, despite the mountains of words written about it over the past week, does not really pose a security threat to Israel. At most, it involves several hundred activists coming to Israel from friendly states, and all those countries conduct extensive security checks on flights to Israel,” commented Harel.

“Thus the chance that any of these activists will manage to smuggle even a knife into Israel is remote. And a noisy demonstration at the airport or a mass lie-in in front of passport control would be a public relations stunt, not a substantive threat to the well-being of Israel’s citizens.”

However, Israel’s Justice Ministry, Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and several defense departments who were all involved think differently.

So concerned were the Israeli authorities about negative media coverage reaching the front pages of world dailies that many of the estimated 600 soldiers and police involved in the operation went undercover in ordinary clothes with no weapons or riot-control kits visible.

Security on flights bringing the activists into Israel was beefed up to prevent friction between them and Israeli passengers. Planes landing with groups of activists on board were instructed to land away from the terminal where arriving flights from abroad usually arrive.

Several journalists were physically escorted from the terminal by Israeli security, and others were barred from entering. However, many made it in, including IPS, resulting in saturation coverage of the arrest of the Israeli activists and the immediate deportation of dozens of foreign activists.

Over 300 activists were turned away at their airports of origin in Europe after Israel presented several airlines with a passenger blacklist. Despite the draconian measures, well over 100 made it to Ben Gurion, with several dozen managing to slip through security questioning and make it to the Palestinian West Bank after posing as “innocent tourists.”

The estimated 100-plus activists who didn’t make it through the hours of grilling by Israeli security agents are now languishing in several Israeli prisons awaiting deportation.

Airlines involved in flying activists back have said that logistics could be an issue, with flights fully booked. The possibility of physical resistance on the return flights could also rule out certain passengers being accepted on board.

Just several weeks ago Israel succeeded in preventing the second Free Gaza flotilla from reaching Gaza, with diplomatic pressure on an economically-strapped and vulnerable Greek government. The full details of that are still to be made public.

Sabotage of several boats in Greek ports and threats to passengers also succeeded in preventing the boats from sailing.

While Israel won that battle, it lost the publicity war.

“Blocking the flotilla did not discourage the organizers, who are graduates of the anti-apartheid and anti-white supremacy struggles. Rather, it provided ample proof of how white Israel is. As a result, blocking the flotilla only increased their motivation to keep placing the Palestinians’ demand for freedom at the forefront of the international agenda,” commented veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass in Haaretz.

Israel’s latest PR nightmare comes in the wake of several UN reports criticizing the country for the use of excessive force during Nakba demonstrations in May to mark Palestinian dispossession when over 20 unarmed demonstrators were shot dead by Israeli forces as they approached what Israel considers its borders.

Another UN report assailed Israel for using excessive force on the first Gaza flotilla last year when Israeli commandos shot dead nine Turkish activists, some of them at point-blank range.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mel Frykberg

Mel Frykberg writes for Inter Press Service.