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In Israel, pro-Palestinian activists get attention, if not entry

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Israel blocked or detained all but a handful of hundreds of pro-Palestinian foreign activists who planned to gather here Sunday, and the event appeared to be something of a bust.

Or maybe not. A media scrum stood alongside a phalanx of hundreds of police officers deployed at the airport in Tel Aviv, where travelers participating in the fly-in were scheduled to arrive. Present at an evening news conference in this biblical city were one French woman who had made it past immigration authorities and about a dozen cameras.

“In terms of media, yes, we have managed to show that Israel is pretending to be a democracy,” organizer Abdul Fattah Abu Srour told reporters. “These people are not coming to make trouble.”

Organizers of the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign said they intended to draw attention to Israel’s control of entry points to the West Bank, where Palestinians want to build a future state. They said more than 1,500 foreigners had booked flights and, if allowed in, would build a school and plant trees, among other activities.

Israeli officials, wary of confrontations with activists protesting Israeli policies toward the Palestinian territories, had deemed the travelers “provocateurs” and “radicals” who planned to confront security forces, a claim the campaign’s organizers denied. Officials also made clear they considered the activists’ mission misplaced.

“You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people . . . [or] the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent,” the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in a letter that it said would be distributed to fly-in participants who landed in Israel. “Instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy.”

In preparation for the event, Israel provided names of suspected participants to foreign airlines, and hundreds of activists, mostly Europeans, were denied boarding by several airlines. Nearly 50 people had been detained at Ben Gurion Airport by Sunday evening, while only three had made it to Bethlehem, organizers said. More were to attempt travel overnight and on Monday.

The campaign was dubbed a “flytilla,” a reference to the flotilla that attempted in 2010 to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. Nine activists were killed by Israeli commandoes who raided one ship.

Some Israeli commentators, even those critical of the fly-in, said the official response was overkill and perhaps counterproductive.

“The organizers of the fly-in have one goal only: to cast Israel as a country that bars access to ‘peace activists,’ ” Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in the Hebrew-language Ma’ariv newspaper on Sunday. “The tragedy is that they are going to achieve that goal.”

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