Israel dispatched a beefed-up security force to its main international airport Thursday and asked foreign airlines to prevent blacklisted travelers from boarding Tel Aviv-bound flights, ahead of the anticipated arrival of hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists.
The activists, who say their mission is peaceful, have placed Israel in an awkward position: authorities seem torn between their determination to keep out people they consider hostile agitators and a sense that they may be taking the bait en route to another public relations debacle.
By Thursday evening, eight people had been blocked from boarding one flight in Paris.
No activists had arrived in Israel by 1 a.m. Friday and no disturbances were reported at the airport. Israeli officials said they expected most of the arrivals to begin midday Friday, and scaled back the security presence at the airport overnight.
Israel has experienced a series of deadly run-ins with pro-Palestinian activists over the past year, both on the high seas and along the frontiers with Lebanon and Syria. These clashes have drawn international criticism, and Israel appeared wary of being drawn into a new confrontation.
It remained unclear how many activists would be allowed into Israel on their way to the West Bank. Officials said they are not trying to prevent the activists from visiting the Palestinian area but are concerned about people with records of trouble or those who plan to participate in violent acts.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would show restraint but stressed it was a "basic right" for a country to block suspected provocateurs from entering. "We have a restrained resolve to deal with provocations, to prevent disruptions of the public order," he said during a trip to Bulgaria.
Israeli officials did not explain how they define provocateurs, and activists accused Israel of a launching a smear campaign against them.
"This is a total circus by the Israeli authorities, who are painting us as criminals," said French activist Olivia Zemor. She said her group, "Welcome to Palestine," planned only nonviolent activities.
Roughly 600 activists are expected to arrive at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport over the weekend, beginning late Thursday. They say they are on a weeklong mission to express solidarity with the Palestinians and draw attention to life under Israeli occupation, including travel restrictions. Zemor said about half of the activists are French, ranging in age from nine to 85. Others are expected to fly to Tel Aviv from other cities, including Geneva, London, Brussels and Istanbul.
Visitors can only reach the West Bank through Israeli-controlled crossings, either through international airports or the land border with Jordan. At any given time, hundreds of foreigners, including activists and aid workers, are in the West Bank.
Barred from entry
Most Palestinians are barred from entering Israel or using its airport, forced to travel to neighboring Jordan to fly out.
Travel restrictions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, run by the militant Hamas group, are even stricter. Israel allows few people to cross its border with Gaza. And with few exceptions, Gazans can only travel abroad by crossing into Egypt through their shared border. A separate flotilla of foreign activists that had hoped to sail to Gaza this week fizzled after being thwarted by Greece.
"We are trying to show that there are two blockades in fact, in Gaza and the West Bank," said Zemor, the French activist.
Some in Israel were critical of the government, saying officials created unnecessary hysteria.
"The State of Israel has lost its senses," columnist Eitan Haber — a former top official — wrote in Thursday's Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "We are playing right into the hands of a few bands of troublemakers who are successfully trying to make Israel look bad around the world."
But authorities were taking no chances. Several hundred extra police, including undercover officers, were deployed at the already heavily guarded airport. Authorities also forwarded to European airlines a list of several hundred people, considered by Israel as troublemakers, who should not be allowed to fly.
Israel, a frequent target of attacks by militants, is known for its strict airline security.
The measures begin with check-ins on incoming flights, where some passengers face detailed interrogations on their travels, intentions and possessions. Officials also say they have sophisticated intelligence procedures in place to identify problematic travelers — but critics charge authorities engage in crude profiling, particularly against Arabs, but also targeting their supporters as well as foreign journalists.
In Paris, eight Tel Aviv-bound activists were blocked from boarding Malev Airlines flights destined to Budapest en route to Tel Aviv.
One of those turned away, Philippe Arnaud, said Malev showed him a list provided by Israeli authorities of nearly 400 people being barred from Israel. German carriers Lufthansa and Air Berlin said they also received lists.
Arnaud said he has been investigated in France for his efforts to boycott Israeli products and was once arrested by Israel for organizing a demonstration in the West Bank. But he said some of the others who were stopped had never been to Israel. "That worries us. How could they have files on these people?" he asked. Malev had no comment.
The French Foreign Ministry said it held talks with activists and "warned against the risks inherent in this operation."
In Germany, Lufthansa said it would comply with the Israeli blacklist as well. Lufthansa "is obliged not to transport any passengers who do not hold valid entry permits or whose entry into the respective state has been denied by local authorities beforehand as in this case," airline spokesman Patrick Meschenmoser said Thursday.
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton in Paris and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report. Josef Federman can be reached at www.twitter.com/joseffederman