Bewildered fly-in activist makes it to Bethlehem

Fly-in organizer says those who made it past security did not tell airport passport control why they arrived.

Flytilla protest in Brussels 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Flytilla protest in Brussels 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
By accident Tanya slipped passed 650 police officers at Ben-Gurion Airport – determined to bar her entry to Israel – and made it to the West Bank Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
The young petite woman, with her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, seemed surprised to be standing there, let alone talking with a room full of reporters.
“I do not know why I am here, but I am here,” said Tanya. Although she is a French citizen, she spoke in English and did not give her last name.
She was one of an estimated 12 members of the “Welcome to Palestine” event who actually made it to Bethlehem. Close to 2,000 activists were expected to try to fly into Ben-Gurion and announce that they had come to visit Palestine.
On Sunday, as of press time, only hundreds had participated, and many of them were barred from boarding flights in their home countries after Israel sent the airlines a blacklist with 500 names. Some 60 activists were detained upon arrival.
Tanya, who wore a blue shirt and a gray sweatshirt, described how she had been part of a group of 25 pro- Palestinian French activists who flew from Geneva to Tel Aviv.
“I was one of the last to get off the plane. There were a lot of police officers. I saw a lot of people who were on the flight and who I am friends with,” she said.
After that, she explained, it was very confusing. People spoke with her in Hebrew, but she didn’t understand them. They kept wanting her to move from one place to another and she never was able to explain to them why she had arrived.
“They said, ‘follow this man.’ Then they said, ‘follow this woman.’ So I followed. I ended up outside the building. There were two buses and a lot of people. They were staring at me. Someone said I had to be on a particular bus,” she said.
So she got on that bus and before she knew it, she was outside Terminal 3.
“It is important to be here because we should all have the right to come to Palestine and to meet Palestinian people. We should fight for what we believe is right,” she said.
Tanya was among the lucky activists. Palestinian organizer Mazin Qumsiyeh said that the dozen who made it to Bethlehem did not tell passport control why they arrived.
In Istanbul, another group of 50 French citizens were not as lucky. They flew Turkish Airlines believing it would not cede to a request by Israel not to board passengers participating in the event, which has been dubbed the fly-in or the flytilla.
Initially, their tactic appeared to work, as they easily left Paris.
But according to French pro-Palestinian activist Olivia Zemore, 63, who heads the delegation, they were stopped in Istanbul, when they tried to board a 12:40 p.m. flight for Tel Aviv.
She spoke with The Jerusalem Post from her cellphone, close to press time, while she was still in the airport, but was hopeful that she had a seat on a flight back to Paris on Monday.
“We have been squatting here to protest and to get our money back. We wanted a piece of paper stating that we were denied boarding, and we finally got it,” she said. “Now we are asking Turkish Airlines to pay our return ticket.” It appeared, she added, that the airline had agreed to do this.
“I think the Israeli government is just crazy because it would have been easy to let us go to Bethlehem,” she said, and explained that among the activities they planned to participate in was to build a school.
Zemor, who heads the Euro Palestine group and who is a member of the BDS movement, had been vocal before the trip about her intention to participate in the flytilla.
She had been hopeful that she would be allowed to enter Israel, even though she attempted to participate in the same event last July and was barred from boarding a plane at the airport in Paris.
Last year Belgian citizen Myriam De Ly, 60, flew to Israel in the July Welcome to Palestine event.
When she landed, she was stopped at passport control, taken to a nearby prison and deported after four days.
On Saturday, the airline and the Belgian Foreign Ministry informed her that her ticket to Israel had been canceled.
Still, she was among 60 Belgian citizens who went to the airport with their luggage at 5:30 a.m. in hopes that they would still be able to board their flights on Lufthansa and Swiss Air.
“One by one they said we could not check in,” she said. None of the group was allowed to board, she explained.
When they refused to leave the airport and protested the police were called.
“They intervened violently, and they tried to take us out, one by one,” she said.
But not everyone on a list of 500 names blacklisted by Israel were activists.
Among those kept from boarding was former banker Jules Troxler, 62, who described himself as pro-Israel. He left his home in Zurich at 6:30 a.m. only to discover that he could not fly to visit an ailing friend because he was blacklisted.
He was startled, he said, but not totally surprised, because his friend had warned him that there might be trouble because of the flytilla.
But the airline never explained to him why his ticket was canceled. Additionally, all of his attempts to reason with Swiss Air, he said, failed. The trip, Troxler said, had been planned for two years.
“We were going to go to the Dead Sea for two days. I especially wanted to come at this time of year because it is not so hot,” he said.
“I guess I booked the wrong day,” he added.
Ben Hartman contributed to this report.