Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Israel holds 47 pro-Palestinian activists pending expulsion

Pro-Palestinian activists are escorted onto a plane heading back to Belgium

Israeli authorities were on Monday holding 47 foreigners pending deportation, out of 79 barred from entering the Jewish state because of their links to a pro-Palestinian campaign, an official said.

"There are 47 people still awaiting deportation, including 37 French nationals, eight Britons, an Italian and a Canadian," immigration official Sabine Haddad told AFP.

"Those who remain will be repatriated by the same airline companies that brought them to Israel as soon as there are places available for them," she added.

All 79 activists would be barred from entering Israel for five years, Haddad said.

Hundreds of Israeli police had been deployed at the airport from Saturday night in a bid to prevent the arrival of a wave of foreigners taking part in the "Welcome to Palestine" fly-in campaign, also known as the "flytilla."

Organisers of the campaign, now in its third year, had been expecting to welcome up to 1,500 people, but Israel vowed to prevent them from entry, warning airlines they would be forced to foot the bill for the activists' immediate return home.

The organisers said in a statement on Monday that the detained activists had begun a hunger strike "in solidarity with the April 17 Palestinian Prisoners' Day on one hand and to renew the demand for their basic right to move freely in the occupied West Bank, especially to Bethlehem."

European airlines, under Israeli pressure, cancelled the tickets of at least 300 Tel Aviv-bound passengers, sparking angry protests in several European capitals.

According to Haaretz newspaper, over a third of the names presented to the airlines were added to the blacklist without any concrete evidence they were planning anything illegal.

Quoting a senior source familiar with the list, the paper said there was no evidence that 470 of the 1,200 names on it -- compiled by Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency -- were involved in "pro-Palestinian activities" or affiliated with the "flytilla."

Police at the airport also arrested nine Israeli activists who had come to support the visitors.

Last year, around 800 people tried to join the campaign, with many blocked from flying by airlines. Another 120 were denied entry by Israel and deported.

Hanan Ashrawi, a leading member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said that the activists "bravely challenged Israeli policies of siege, apartheid and discrimination by attempting to enter Palestine this weekend."

"Such means of popular, nonviolent resistance are inspirational and expose the oppressive and colonialist policies of the Israeli government," she said in a statement.

Ashrawi also urged the campaigners' home countries "to protect their nationals from persecution and prevent their national airline companies from becoming instruments of Israeli coercion."

The United States, Israel's closest ally, defended the actions of the Jewish state.

"Israel is a sovereign nation. Like any sovereign nation, it has a right to control the flow of people and goods through its ports," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington.

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