Bethlehem mayor: Allow ‘flytilla’ to enter country

Some 2,000 pro-Palestinian foreigners expected to try to enter the country en masse next week.

Police at Ben Gurion Airport 311 (R) (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Police at Ben Gurion Airport 311 (R)
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh and Palestinian activists urged Israel on Tuesday to allow some 2,000 pro-Palestinian foreigners to enter the country en masse on Sunday.
The protest event, formally called “Welcome to Palestine,” has been dubbed the “fly-in” or the “flytilla.”
A group of 20 grassroots associations organized the event to protest Israel’s practice of banning foreign activists at Ben-Gurion Airport, who Israel believes are likely to endanger public order.
Israel has already stated that it plans to bar the activists from entering the country either by alerting airlines not to allow them onto the plane or by deporting them once they arrive.
At a press conference about the event in Bethlehem, the mayor urged Israel to change its tune.
“These people are coming to talk about peace, they are not coming to wage war against Israel,” he said. “They are coming to visit the Palestinian people who are under occupation and to talk to them and to help them because these people are isolated.”
He continued, “We are asking our neighbors the Israeli government to make it easy for these people to enter the Palestinian National Authority, so that we can have this message of peace starting from this holy city of Bethlehem.”
Batarseh added that “having peace in this part of the world benefits Israelis and Palestinians.”
He called on Europe and the United States to support the protest. People who speak out about Israel’s policies are called “anti-Semitic,” he said, but urged the US and Europe not to fear this label.
Activists who make it into the area will then spend a week learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and working on Palestinian projects such as the renovation of a kindergarten, building a museum on the history of Palestinian refugees and planting trees.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian activist and professor at Bethlehem University, said that the foreign visitors were from 15 countries, mostly Central Europe, but that some were also from the US and Canada.
“These are not hooligans. The people who are coming are normal, average Europeans who want to learn and visit people under occupation,” he said.
He added that there were media offices in Paris, Rome and Berlin publicizing the event, and that people were also working to support it in Ramallah and Israel.
One Israeli activist at the press conference, who did not want to be named, said that the police had questioned seven Israeli activists about the upcoming flytilla.
Ahead of a similar event last July, the country sent airlines a list of 342 activists who it believed planned to participate and asked that they be kept from boarding planes. It deported 124 activists who landed at Ben-Gurion for the event.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that the country had alerted airlines this year as well. Its list included activists from last July’s fly-in, as well as those who had publicized their intended participation this year.
Palmor noted that it was standard practice for airlines not to board passengers who could not disembark once they reached their destination.
He said many pro-Palestinian foreigners entered Israel through Ben-Gurion all the time; the only ones who were barred were those Israel believed would create a public disturbance.
Just last week, all but one participant of the Chile Palestine Friendship group was granted entry through Ben- Gurion, he said, explaining that the participant who had been stopped had justified terrorism and incited against Jews in Chile.
If these activists wanted to, they could enter Israel without creating a scene, he said.
“If they wanted to go to Bethlehem, they would have gone and no one would have stopped them,” he said. “But these people want to create a provocation at the airport; they want to occupy Ben- Gurion.”