Of the many fruits born of the Arab Spring, is any more exotic than the protest unfolding at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport this week? In what Palestinian organizers describe as a kind of sidelong challenge to Israeli control of access to the occupied territories, activists are arriving at the airport, standing in line at immigration and, when they reach the booth, announcing to the uniformed officer their intention to visit the West Bank.
That’s it. Travelers arrive, declare their destination, and go from there.
As a practical matter, where they’ll likely go from there is back onto the plane that brought them. Israel generally takes a dim view of international activists who show up to demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians, and as a sovereign state has the power to turn away pretty much whoever it likes — or at least question them for so long the traveler soon regrets his candor, or ancestry, or both.
“They usually tell the Israeli officials at the airport what the Israelis want to hear,” says Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a protest spokesman by phone from Bethlehem. “People, to avoid the harassment, they usually say they’re tourists or coming to visit family.”
But not this time. This time, the visitors will play it straight, and suffer the consequences. How many are they? Certainly scores. Perhaps hundreds. Maybe even thousands. It’s hard to say and likely will remain so, since whatever occurs will take place in the sterile, secure dominions behind airport security. It’s entirely possible that all these activists will spend many hundreds of dollars each on tickets to an airport they will never leave, to make a scene that will remain entirely invisible to any member of the public who doesn’t happen to be standing in line at immigration. During a bad stretch at Ben Gurion, when four or five flights land at once, that can be a couple thousand people. And how much is anyone in a monster queue going to appreciate even one grandstanding delay? Talk about picking the wrong line…
“If they claim to be a democracy why not allow the public to see?” asks Qumsiyeh, arguing for Israeli authorities allowing members of the news media past security to record whatever unfolds. Understanding that’s unlikely to happen, he says that some journalists will be arriving unannounced on the same flights to witness and record whatever transpires.
As political theater, it’s all rather elaborate, and not a little obscure. At one point in the telephone chat, Qumsiyeh, a biology professor specializing in small mammals, put it this way: “There’s a point to be made, but it’s not our point to make this point.” The core idea, however, appears to be to bait the Israelis a bit and be sure cameras are rolling if they respond by overplayiing their hand. This happened to spectacular effect a year ago with the Flotilla Fiasco, when Israeli commandos tried to stop a ferry full of activists making for the Gaza Strip and ended up killing nine civilians. Israel managed to thwart assorted efforts to mount a second flotilla to the Gaza Strip this month, mostly by prevailing on Greece and Turkey to prevent boats from leaving their waters in the first place. And they took only a moderate amount of heat for gunning down unarmed Palestinian protesters at the border fence of the Golan Heights in May and June, though a U.N. report called the first lethal response, at least, a disproportionate use of force.
The peculiar thing about the Ben Gurion gambit is that Israel’s workaday, totally routine immigration gauntlet reliably generates its own bad press without any outside help. Within four months last summer, the Jewish State took its lumps for denying entry to Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor so popular overseas for his criticism of U.S. foreign policy; for deeming the most popular clown in Spain, Ivan Prado, a security threat and putting him on a plane back to Galicia; and for interrogating former US Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala for two and a half hours because her last name sounds Arab (and is; her parents were Lebanese immigrants).
It’s not yet clear whether Israel’s security establishment will rise to the bait at Ben Gurion, but the Hebrew news media, at least, fairly quivers with anticipation of a showdown. Haaretz reports some 600 police have been dispatched to the airport. Yedioth Ahronoth has officials scanning flight lists for names of known activists and instructing airlines to deny them seats. “They’re calling it the ‘Fly-in,’the Flytilla’—even suggesting we’re going to hijack and airplane and fly to Gaza,” says Quimsiyeh. The exception: Eitan Haber’s analysis in Yedioth suggests police re-deploy against more direct threats to public order, like burglars and car thieves. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he writes, “Ms. Anita Smarkachi, a 78-year old revolutionary, hailing from Genoa, Italy, is approaching the runway of Ben-Gurion Airport. The State of Israel is on alert.”