A pro-Palestinian activist flashes the peace sign as he's arrested… (Oliver Weiken, EPA )
Reporting from Bethlehem, West Bank, and Jerusalem — Israel on Friday largely fended off a planned "fly-in" protest by hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists, who had vowed to take commercial flights into Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv and then gather in the West Bank city of Bethlehem to begin a series of demonstrations.
More than 200 international activists, mostly from European countries, were kept from boarding Israel-bound flights after Israeli officials circulated a list of names to airline officials and asked that carriers refuse them seats, officials said.
Several dozen activists, including two Americans arriving from Greece, had made it to Israel's international airport by Friday evening. But they were intercepted by police and deported or held for questioning.
Some of the 50 activists who were barred from boarding flights in France on Friday morning staged noisy protests at Charles de Gaulle airport, accusing several European airlines of restricting their right to travel and "collaborating" with Israel.
"We were very much surprised by the compliance of democratic and pro-human rights countries in Europe, and the airlines, with the Israeli policy," said Sami Awad, a Palestinian activist from Holy Land Trust, one of the protest organizers, at a press conference Friday in Bethlehem.
Israeli officials had warned airlines that they would delay flights or force planes to return to their point of origin if they carried any of the banned activists, according to a government memo published Friday in Israeli media.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said six Israeli citizens were also arrested at the airport when they arrived to protest the airport authority's measures. He said the Israeli activists raised a Palestinian flag and shouted pro-Palestinian slogans.
Rosenfeld defended the arrests as necessary to ensure that Israel's chief commercial airport functioned without disturbance.
It was unclear Friday whether any foreign activists had successfully made it past the airport. None appeared at the Bethlehem press conference held by the protest organizers, a group calling itself Welcome to Palestine.
Palestinian activists said they were expecting as many as 1,000 supporters to participate in nonviolent protests focusing on Israel's controversial separation barrier, which threads its way along the pre-1967 border and into the West Bank.
The timing of the protests was linked to July 9, said Mazin Qumsiyeh, another Palestinian organizer and a professor at Bethlehem University, because on that day in 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled the barrier illegal and called on Israel to dismantle it and compensate Palestinians who had suffered losses as a result of it.
He said the purpose of the fly-in campaign was to highlight Israel's "discriminatory policy against Palestinians and its violation of Palestinian human rights." The planned protest was the latest in a series of moves by pro-Palestinian groups to increase the pressure on Israel by drawing international attention to the Palestinians' fight for statehood.
Some of the fly-in participants were former passengers in another protest action: the stalled flotilla that is attempting to break Israel's naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. A similar flotilla last year led to a high-seas confrontation in which nine Turkish activists were killed by Israeli commandos who met with resistance in taking over a ship.
A draft United Nations report on the May 2010 raid accused Israel of using excessive force, but upheld the legality of the blockade, according to Israeli media. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent weapons from entering Gaza.
Last week, Greek officials prevented the new flotilla from departing Greek ports. When one protest boat tried to set sail without permission, authorities intercepted it and detained some crew members and passengers.
Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian lawmaker, said both the flotilla and Friday's fly-in had succeeded in raising awareness.
"These campaigns have exposed Israeli policies to the international community," he said. "It is proving to Israel that occupation is costly."
Sanders reported from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Bethlehem.