JERUSALEM – Organizers of a planned pro-Palestinian demonstration said Friday they expect about 1,000 activists from Europe and North America to board flights for Israel this weekend, despite Israeli threats to deport them.
Activists with the "Welcome to Palestine" campaign are set to land in Israel on dozens of flights Sunday. They say they wish to travel to nearby Bethlehem in the West Bank to participate in a week of activities, like the dedication of a school and homestays with Palestinian families.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian campaign organizer, said the activists were coming to exercise their right to visit the Palestinian territories.
"The object is not to fly in to make a protest at the airport. The object is for foreigners to visit us," Qumsiyeh said. "Even prisoners are allowed visits."
Israel's public security minister has called the activists "provocateurs" and said they are bent on disturbing the public order.
Israel has been jittery about large influxes of foreign activists since a naval raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in May 2010 turned deadly. The Israeli navy and the pro-Palestinian activists have each accused each other of sparking the bloodshed in which nine Turkish activists were killed.
Last July, Israel blocked an effort similar to "Welcome to Palestine" campaign. It beefed up security at the airport, questioned dozens of activists upon arrival at the airport and denied entry to 69.
This weekend Israel says it will round up activists who land in the country and deport them.
Israel has also compiled a list of activists it suspects have booked flights to Israel for the campaign, and has warned airlines they would have to fly those passengers back to their cities of origin if they were allowed on flights to Israel. During last year's fly-in, many airlines barred blacklisted activists from flying to Israel.
German airline company Lufthansa said this year it had received a list of names of activists from Israel and would prevent those passengers from its flights to Israel.
Nicolas Shahshahani, a campaign organizer in France, said Lufthansa had so far canceled tickets and refunded the cost for 40 people who had been booked on the company's flights originating in France. Two passengers not associated with the pro-Palestinian campaign also were barred from the flight, Shahshahani said.
A national union of aviation workers in France protested the cancellations. Union member Pierre Contesenne said the union had sent a letter to the Air France airline, asking it to allow activists to fly.
No other airlines are known to have announced cancellations yet.
EasyJet in England said it had been advised by Israel of a number of passengers that would not be allowed to enter the country. The airline said it had a legal obligation to "refuse carriage of any passenger at the request of the relevant authorities."
The Spanish Iberia airline said it had been asked by the Israeli government to increase security checks on passengers bound for Tel Aviv. As of next week, Iberia will be advising passengers with that destination to check in one and a half hours prior to boarding time.
Mick Napier, a British activist coordinator, said the group would sue any airline which refuses to board activists bound for Israel.
He said organizers have not compiled a complete list of all the Europeans and North Americans who have booked flights for the "Welcome to Palestine" campaign, to prevent Israel from discovering the list and blocking their entry.
"We're not being conspiratorial here, but we don't want to make the Israelis' job easy," Napier said.
He said organizers have asked participants to be honest with Israeli airport authorities about their purpose of arrival.
Apart from this initiative, throughout the year hundreds of foreigners — including activists and aid workers — live, volunteer and work in the West Bank. Israel sometimes denies entry to pro-Palestinian activists it believes could instigate provocations against Israel or pose a risk to the country's security.
Meanwhile, dozens of Palestinians and their supporters demonstrated Friday in their weekly protest against Israel's West Bank separation barrier in the village of Bilin. The barrier cuts off Bilin from much of its land and villagers and international activists have been protesting for years against what they say is a land grab.
Israel says the barrier is necessary to prevent suicide bombing attacks. In 2011, Israel started moving a section of the barrier, in accordance with a court decision, returning much of the town's land to its farmers.
Thomas Adamson in Paris and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.
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