Israel dismisses 'flytilla' protest, pointing to human rights abuses in Syria, Iran

Israel denied entry and deported several dozen pro-Palestinian activists who flew into Tel Aviv's airport on Sunday, arguing they are missing the bigger regional issues.

Israel denied entry and deported several dozen pro-Palestinian activists who arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday, as fears of a mass confrontation at the country’s main international gateway prompted a deployment of hundreds of police and security personnel. 

With turmoil in the region dominating the international agenda and diplomacy on Palestinian statehood mothballed, the vacuum in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is being filled by the civil disobedience of a limited but creative band of local and foreign activists. After today's round, both sides claimed victory in what many observers said was mainly a public relations battle. 

Palestinian organizers of the "Welcome to Palestine Campaign," argued that Israel’s refusal of the activists focused attention on claims of injustice in the West Bank and contradicted Israel’s boast of being the only democracy in the region. The Israeli government said it blocked activists bent on delegitimizing the Jewish state and sowing chaos, and mocked the activists for supposedly ignoring human rights violations in Syria.

Noam Sheizaf, an editor of +972, a dovish Israeli-Palestinian blog, said the results of the fly-in are mixed: Peaceful protests like the fly-in puts Israeli officials on the defensive. But they can’t compete with conflicts elsewhere in the region and would not pressure changes in Israeli policy like the June 2010 activist flotilla to Gaza that forced Israel to lift a blockade.

"Palestinians understand they will not see a sovereign state from the peace process, and they are trying to bring their issue back to the basic denial of human rights," says Mr. Sheizaf. "If I were a newsroom editor I would focus on Syria and Afghanistan as well. But from a Palestinian perspective something is better than nothing."

Citing "security reasons," Israeli police officials claimed they averted potential demonstrations and flight disruptions by blocking 43 activists from entering the country. Hundreds more were blocked by European airlines canceling flights rom airports in France, Switzerland, and Belgium.

The fly-in or "flytilla" was the second such effort to coordinate a demonstration at Ben Gurion Airport in the last two years. The actions were inspired by efforts by pro-Palestinian activists to break an Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, which forced the Jewish state to ease measures after international pressure kicked up in June 2010 from a deadly clash with pro-Palestinian activists.  

The conflict Sunday showed how the escalating crackdown in Syria and diplomatic efforts to stem the violence is affecting how both Israelis and Palestinians frame their own conflict. The Israeli government has new ammunition to assail the pro-Palestinian activists as focusing on the wrong conflict.

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Israel has argued that regional turmoil over democratic reform is proof that the conflict with the Palestinians is not the primary cause of Middle East instability as the Palestinians and many in the West have argued. Rather, economic inequality, lack of democracy and human rights, and sectarian fighting unleashed from the uprisings are greater problems from the standpoint of regional stability.

However, critics of Israel's Palestinian policies argue the issue – used for years as a rallying cry by militants across the Muslim world – has not ceased to be an irritant. Even high-level leaders in the United States, Israel's chief ally, have argued in recent years that the long-running issue has made it more difficult to achieve American foreign policy objectives. 

Reflecting popular indignation in Israel toward the activists, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the activists of treating the Jewish state with a double standard. "If they want to examine the issue of human rights, they should go to Syria … they should go to Gaza … they should go to Iran," he said in a statement. "After that round of study, they should come here and we’ll talk with them."

The prime minister’s office on Saturday said it planned to send a letter sarcastically thanking activists for “choosing” Israel as the focus of their humanitarian concerns.

Many in Israel criticized the government for overreacting and devoting too much attention to the protestors. Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University, said the government’s muscular security presence and its sharp tongued public diplomacy is an understandable reaction to criticism that it was ill-prepared to deal with public relations blows such as the Gaza flotilla, in which nine activists were killed by naval commandos, some of whom were attacked at first.

The Palestinians say that the fly-in and other actions of civil disobedience are intended to shift attention back to accusations of injustice in the West Bank and Gaza. Organizers said Israeli authorities detained activists who said their destination was "Palestine" and asked them to sign forms pledging they wouldn’t participate in solidarity protests.

Ever since the Palestinians failed in an effort to gain international recognition of statehood through a membership bid at the United Nations last September, their cause has seemingly dropped off the international agenda.

In the absence of a diplomatic push, activists have engaged in grass roots civil disobedience. Several weeks ago, Palestinian activists sought to organize a mass march toward Jerusalem to challenge Israeli border forces, but the plans fizzled and demonstrations were relatively modest. Last weekend a group of 250 Palestinian cyclists were forcibly stopped by Israeli soldiers on a West Bank road. Several months ago activists tried to board buses used by settlers, in an effort to invoke freedom rides of the civil rights era.

"On the world stage people, countries try to divert attention to Iran and Syria," says Mazin Qumsieh, a director of the airport protest based here, "but the core problem is that there are 11 million [Palestinian] refugees, and this is the core problem in the Middle East."

Even though Palestinian activists have become more creative, they have failed to ignite the support of the grass roots. Observers said that while Israel continues to be on the defensive in a PR battle it can’t win, it is unlikely to change the situation on the ground.

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